The Jazz.com Blog
August 11, 2008 · 2 comments
We don’t spend much time worrying about the world of classical music here at jazz.com. But the recent punch-up between Joe Queenan and his critics is too interesting to ignore.
Who would have thought that people could get so worked up over contemporary classical music? Yet Mr. Queenan struck a raw nerve when he claimed that most new classical music is little more than self-inflicted pain and torment. A rash decision? Certainly there was no rush to judgment: Queenan notes that he has listened to classical music for some four decades, and has attended 1,500 or so concerts during that period.
Queenan recalls attending a concert of music by Luciano Berio, which The New York Times declared to be "electrifying and sumptuously colorful." But Queenan had a different perspective. “I gazed down from the balcony at a sea of old men snoring, a bunch of irate, middle-aged women fanning themselves with their programs, and scores of high-school students poised to garrote their teachers in reprisal for 35 minutes of non-stop torture.”
The full text of his article can be found here.
The responses to Queenan have been as fierce as his initial assault. Anyone who thinks that classical music fans are polite and well-mannered needs to check out the give-and-take on this subject. This full-scale defense of contemporary classical music by Tom Service attracted more than one hundred comments from readers before the comments box was finally shut down.
If I were a judge here, I would rule against both sides. Queenan’s sweeping generalizations are hard to defend. In fact, I find that there is more interesting contemporary classical music being made today than at any point in my adult life. I could assemble a fairly long list of living and recently deceased composers whose works make for compelling listening, yet whose music is almost entirely unknown even among intelligent, educated folks. (This may be a worthwhile subject for a future blog.)
Yet those who attack Queenan are a little scary too. Consider, for example, this revealing remark by Service: “The problem is that Queenan seems to equate a composer making a ‘breakthrough’ not with whether audiences actually go to hear this stuff - they do - but whether he likes it or not. . . . What's pernicious, however, is that he uses this wholly subjective response as evidence of a terminal decline of contemporary classical music culture.”
In other words, Joe Queenan goes wrong by actually hoping he will enjoy the music he hears. How antiquated! He even relies on his subjective experience (horrors!) in responding to the music. Doesn’t Queenan realize that there are objective sources (e.g., The New York Times, Tom Service, etc.) that he can easily substitute for his own judgment? If Queenan had enough trust in these infallible authorities, he wouldn't even need to listen to the music at all. He could just buy the CDs and proudly display them on the mantelpiece.
This response to Queenan brings us full circle back to the viewpoint Mark Twain poked fun at more than a century ago, when he quipped that "Wagner's music is better than it sounds.” (Pedantic footnote: Twain, as he himself admitted, borrowed this clever line from Edgar Wilson Nye.) Here's my advice: anyone who writes music criticism should start every morning by saying the following words in front of a mirror: “Music can never be better than it sounds.”
Frankly, I would argue that any adequate defense of avant garde classical music can and must take into account the subjective perspective of the audience. This is not hard to do, and it is interesting to see that Service doesn't even try to defend this ground. This tells you something about the current state of musical criticism. For my part, I refuse to accept any advocacy for any type of music that devalues my personal experience, including my enjoyment (horrors! . . that word again). The fact that a serious commentator on music can be so smuggly dismissive of the validity of the listener’s perspective is both disturbing and revealing. This type of authoritarian ideology substituting for music criticism does more damage than a hundred Joe Queenans.
For other responses to Queenan, check out Terry Teachout, Roger Evans, and John Berry. I especially like John Stoehr’s article, which asks, why can’t we discuss matters such as this in American newspapers? To which I answer: just wait until Madonna or Britney start composing symphonies.
This blog entry posted by Ted Gioia