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Questions on Music for Five Experts – Part Two

Questions on Music for Five Experts – Part Two

niin & näin 3/15

[ks. suomenkielinen versio]


Rose Rosengard Subotnik
Professor Emerita of Music
Brown University
Author of Developing Variations (1991) & Deconstructive Variations (1996)


This is for my children, Eva Subotnik and Joseph (Joey) Subotnik,
and for theirs


Why do we keep listening to music?

I think the answers are different at different stages of life. Small children (I think here of my young grandchildren) seem to like music, especially singing, to communicate with others, to repeat uttering things they enjoy uttering, to learn new words and tunes, and to have fun through dancing. From youth into middle age (a span of time that varies with different people, perhaps), music is often inextricable from fundamentally erotic feelings: sexual excitement and pleasure on the one hand, loss and pain on the other. In old age it involves both a need to affirm one’s feeling of being alive and one’s need to revisit and cherish memories. Everyone, I suppose, goes to music for the feeling that it’s “good to be alive,” for emotional and existential solace, and for the celebration of one’s connection to other people and to traditions.

Everyone surely likes to listen again and again to music they find beautiful, at least in some way. Many people seem also to listen to music repeatedly for various sorts of quiet – more passive or abstract, mental or associative – experience (structural complexity, mental stimulation, concoction of imaginary scenarios), but that is clearly not true of everyone. Far more people probably listen to music because it enables them to move their bodies pleasurably – though again I would say this is not true of all people or all kinds of music. And I have no idea whatsoever why some people, mainly young ones, feel they cannot survive for even a minute without music in their ears. Adorno, in his Introduction to the Sociology of Music, was surely right on this topic: music should not be ubiquitous. It should announce its presence with a flourish.

What has not been comprehended about music?

The effect of style. Charles Rosen, on p. 21 of The Classical Style, asserted that all styles are capable of expressing all affects. I have always thought him wrong, but have not yet encountered (much less devised) a compelling counter-argument to his assertion.

What is the most deplorable misunderstanding concerning music?

I think that misunderstandings have been different in different periods of history. When I was studying music, as a child (piano) and young adult, in the late 1940s through the mid-1960s, I was exposed to two sorts of reasons for listening to music. One, at least as I perceived it, involved one’s duty to high art. One must process music in every aspect through the knowledge-machine in one’s brain; one must never listen to music for pure bodily pleasure; and above all, perhaps, one must never separate the experience of music from the development of discipline, whether in one’s listening practices or one’s fingers. One could liken this model to advocating the health benefits of eating vegetables. These formative experiences have skewed my relationship to Western art music up to the present day (I am now 72). The other sort of listening to which I was exposed early was listening totally for fun. My purest experience of this source – involving no snobbery, no competitive knowledge, no need for arcane facts – was my father’s relationship to American popular music in the decades of his youth, the 1920s and 1930s, and to the communal singing I learned at children’s summer camps in the 1950s and 1960s. This is the music to which I have the most untroubled relationship today, and to which I am now drawn in my scholarship.

On the other hand, I think models of listening among young people today show their own kinds of misunderstanding. I’ve already mentioned the assumption that one must listen to music during every waking hour. In addition I would single out as a mistake the conviction that all types of music have equal value. Of course I would not require all human beings to assign value to different types of music in the same way. But I would grant each person the right to like and even value some sorts of music more than others; and I would go further to assert that some people make a more persuasive case for their choices than other people do. In my later years of teaching, I often asked students if they would like to live in a world in which there were no hierarchies of musical value. Invariably they recoiled from the prospect of such a world. Most of us would grant that within a given category, some pieces of music are better than others; but I believe also that most of us have inner convictions that some whole types of music are better than others and that we would like those convictions to stand until or unless we are persuaded to broaden (or conceivably narrow) our tastes.

Here is where education has an undeniable value: if teachers can communicate their reasons for actually loving a certain kind of music, they have rendered a useful service. Here, too, high craft plays a part. Whether that craft results from long years of discipline (in composition or performance) or from some spontaneous capacity of a composer or performer for brilliance, highly crafted music, I believe, does have a special claim on our attention. Not all music is equal. Punk music is of historical interest, but can be safely ignored, in my judgment, within the all-too-short span of a human life.

I don’t think everyone can write good music. When students entering college tell me they want above everything else to write and perform their own voice and guitar music, I tend to suspect that most of this music will not be worth the attention of strangers; I have always thought that musical professionals have a vital role to play in musical life. Of course these two positions catch me in a paradox: I want music to be an experience that produces joy, not anxiety, and yet I also want to preserve a special place for musicians who have undergone the stress of mastering a discipline. I doubt I will ever unravel the full ramifications of this paradox.

Why do we still need to listen to Mozart? Why would it be advisable to try to fathom Stockhausen’s pieces?

I don’t think we need to listen to any particular music. That, to me, is the “eat your vegetables” fallacy of music. Once upon a time people might have agreed that listening to Mozart’s music was an essential component in the civilizing of (at least Western) adults, but I think Nazism dispelled that illusion. Maybe the closest we can come to a necessity for listening to Mozart is the need to find out why others whom we admire – whether family members, teachers, or historical figures – loved his music. But this reason is much less likely to present itself in the case of Stockhausen. Modernism in all the arts turned loving art into a problem.

How could we correct our conception of music, essentially cooked up from 18th to 20th-century western ingredients, with something originating from other times and places?

I can think of two partial suggestions. First, we could call our students’ attention to the nature of the miracle that style in Western art music can accomplish over very long periods of time. One could attend many classes on different Western art repertories and hear many versions of the Great Man theory of history. But rarely would the teacher call to mind the overwhelming improbability that a single individual’s way of putting musical elements together could be recognized by millions of other people long after that individual has died. It is a miracle of communication, not equally possible in all of the arts, and not possible (or desired) in all eras or kinds of music, Western or otherwise. We should ask our students to consider: Is this a worthy accomplishment, and if so why? And why is it so rare?

My second suggestion comes from a crucial distinction that Adorno makes between the metaphysical import of Wagner’s music and the renunciation of metaphysics by French composers such as Debussy (see Adorno, Philosophie der neuen Musik, 8th ed, pp. 173–74); I discuss this passage in “The Unwritable in Full Pursuit of the Unreadable: Adorno’s Philosophie der neuen Musik in Translation,” Music Analysis, 30/i (2011), 102–105. This is a powerful metaphor that could be applied to the Common Practice period of Western art music with profit. If one could get beyond the platitudes of music and spirituality, one might get at something profound about what music has meant to people in various Western cultures. A related question: why do so many people think of Impressionism as the quintessential style of Western painting? Is it connected to the removal of metaphysical reference from the painting medium – and a concomitant rise of aesthetic conceptions?

Both of these suggestions beg for application in some way to music outside the realm of Western art music.

Is the distinction between absolute or autonomous music on the one hand, and non-absolute or non-autonomous music on the other, a serviceable tool in making sense of the topic?

Since leaving the academy I have become more and more conscious of what Adorno meant by in his attack, in various places, on Wagner for turning music from time into space. In one sense his meaning seemed obvious: one could call it something of a continuation of Karol Berger’s wonderful thesis in his book Bach’s Cycle, Mozart’s Arrow: An Essay on the Origins of Musical Modernity (U of California Press, 2007). Once music moved from cycle to arrow; now it had moved once again, into a static condition of space. At the time I discussed this idea with my students, however, I was mostly fixed on various traditional modernists, so to speak, of the Western art tradition – say Debussy, Satie, with his musical furniture, and Webern. I did not then think much of music as literally spatial (except, for some reason, in connection with Berg’s Wozzeck). Today I realize that Adorno’s “space” amounts to physical ambience or environment. Whether or not Adorno could possibly have sensed the degree to which this notion of music would someday suffuse the human world, there can be little doubt that it is largely as ambience that young folks, at least in the West, experience music today. Music as ambience is not compatible with music made on a stage to which audience members look from a distance. It is compatible with functional music of all kinds (church, dance, informal chamber music); with music on electronic devices traveling through ubiquitous earbuds; and of course with vast parts of our contemporary soundscape, from the inescapability of music to the kinds of sounds that are now composed, or generated, for precisely such a context. Somewhere in this imagery, I believe, is a sequel to the distinction between absolute and non-absolute music. Trickier – but still perhaps valuable – would be an attempt to correlate a) the distinction between presence and absence of metaphysical reference in music (see question 8) with b) the distinction between absolute and non-absolute music.

Is there another form or art that is almost as close to you as music?

Prose (artistic and otherwise). I choose when I want to listen to music, which I almost never use as a background medium. When I listen to music, I give it my full attention. But I turn to music only from time to time whereas I must have reading material with me during every waking hour.

What are you studying currently? What are you listening to right now?

For some time I have been focused on the study of vernacular American music – above all Tin Pan Alley songs and the scores of American musicals but also popular songs of later decades. I’m also drawn to such heavily instrumental types of music as old-time American string band music and bluegrass, and to various kinds of jazz (though not bebop). I would like to learn to play the banjo before I die. Above all I have come late in life to the realization that I am a song fanatic. I love not only singing songs and listening to all kinds of versions of them but also reading and gathering all kinds of information about them. It’s almost a kind of collecting obsession except that it does not necessarily involve the collection of physical objects (though I do have many CDs and piano-vocal song anthologies). Nothing in my earlier musicological career gave me quite this feeling of unstoppable passion. It links me not only to my past and to my parents, now gone, but also to my two-year-old granddaughter, Lila, to whom I am constantly singing songs and who seems to run around everywhere tossing out of her mouth – sometimes aloud, sometimes under her breath – pieces of a huge mosaic of songs in her head.

As in my essay, “How Many Ways Can You Idolize a Song? From Adorno to American Idol” (in Idol Anxiety, ed. Josh Ellenbogen and Aaron Tugendhaft, pp. 117–32), I keep coming back to the profoundly affecting words of Irish writer Nuala O’Faolain when she learned in 2008 of the cancer that would soon end her life. “I know loads and loads of songs,” she said, “and what’s the point of it all? [...] So much has happened, and it seems such a waste of creation, that with each death all that knowledge dies.” Of course it is not just songs that have this effect. Mahler, too, conveyed through music the inseparable urgency and futility of life. In his ability to provide this kind of life-treasuring musical memento mori, Mahler comes close to being an indispensable composer.


[cf. the other four staccato interviews: Part One, Part Three, Part Four, Part Five]



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