Writs Large

People have described me as a grim pessimist in the past.

Yet, I try to find the good in all forms of music. I really do. I’m just as likely to write a paper on the music of Samuel Jones as I am Samuel Adler.  I’m as likely to listen to Kieren MacMillan as I am James MacMillan.  If I am a believer in any founding principle, it’s that no one aesthetic orientation is inherently supreme.  It’s quality that matters, not aesthetic, to me.  I’ve been a strident defender of post-tonal music lately, but that’s because I perceive post-tonal music as the form of music that is currently excluded from most concert halls today (at least here in the States, and by concert halls, I mean those that are administrated by the for-profit concert giving establishment).

But my central point is that there is good in all forms of music— even tonal music.  Even post-tonal music.  Even minimalist music.  Even commercial music.  I believe good music can be found in all aesthetic genres.

I really am a starry-eyed optimist at heart.  I really am.  Call me maudlin and pollyanna if you will.


But a lot of professionals are deeply invested in camps, and they perceive the success of their own camps as contingent on the failure of the camps of others they perceive as competition.  Music is deeply personal for nearly every musical professional, so one becomes greatly invested in the ‘rightness’ of one’s musical choices and devotions.  When the possible rightness of other possibilities and choices becomes readily apparent, all too often, professionals perceive a threat, and lash out— viciously.

For example, say you were a modernist in the 1980s.  Although modernism was losing its hold over academia and certainly over the professional concert hall, modernism still seemed to have enough life in it and enough staying power in it to be a good career bet.  So let’s say you place all your proverbial eggs in the modernist basket and make your wager.  You compose modernist pieces, you perform modernist works of other composers, and you analyze modernist works in some sort of set-theoretic or transformational-theoretic or whatever manner.  And you expect big things to happen because Modernism Is Here to Stay.  It’s kept people employed in academia since the 1960s, and shows no signs of dying out.

But then a sea change occurs.  Within a few short years, modernism is all but dead, at least as far as your prospects of a hot new career are concerned.  Modernism has been bumped off the front page.  Not by minimalism.  Not by neo-Romanticism.  Those you can actually sort of tolerate, and you dutifully address in your classrooms and performance schedule.

No, instead, what happens is New Musicology.  Suddenly, pop music is in.  Music of non-Western cultures is in.  Critiquing the canon— a canon that sees your modernism as a kind of apex— is in.  And suddenly, you’re not the hot prospect anymore.  Once you were bound for a tenure-track position at an Ivy League school, and now you’re teaching at Whatever State.  All because you placed the wrong bet on the wrong horse.  Modernism’s hold on the strings of power loosened until they all but let go.

How would you feel?

If you’re a human being, you’d probably feel pretty resentful.  If you’re human, you’d probably chafe at every new development.  Film music?  That’s in, way in.  Electronica?  In, big, especially with the ongoing development of web technology and every new social media surprise.  What’s next?  Video game music?  Or, worse, a conference devoted to the serious study of video game music?  Is nothing sacred anymore?

It would take a pretty big person not to feel a whole truckload of resentment and hurt as you watch while the world passes your now ironically named “Modernism” right on by.

But that’s precisely what we need.  We need big people, because it’s a big world, and big people for a big world are in increasingly small supply.

We need big people who can let go of the resentments, because nearly all those resentments are actually predicated on a worse sin than the human frailty of envy: they are usually based on a logical fallacy.  And that fallacy is the logical fallacy of the false dichotomy.

Music can have either artistic value, or it can be pop music.  But it can’t be both.

Music can embrace the people and be the music of the people, or it can be post-tonal.  But it can’t be both.

Music either pursues the true artist’s vision and pursue a progressive agenda, or it can be neo-Romantic.  But it can’t be both.

Music is either great, like the Western Canon is great, or it can be Asian/Latin/African.  But it can’t be both.

“Ethno” music is never great— not like the Western canon is.  Post-tonal music is never embraced by the people— not like tonal music is.  Neo-Romantic music is never progressive— not like post-tonal music is.

And, most importantly, anyone who does not agree is actually pursuing a musical agenda to the detriment of sheer morality.

I’ve heard it time and time again, rubbing elbows with all corners of the concert music world.  Tonal composers are the only ones who are real composers, because they write the music of the people while post-tonal composers are elitist and *therefore immoral*.  Post-tonal composers are the only ones who are real composers, because they write music according to their True Vision and are progressive, unlike Tonal composers who pander to the masses and are *therefore immoral*.  Commercial music composers are the only ones who are real composers because they, by definition, earn a living, unlike academics who don’t make a living writing music and are therefore frauds and are *therefore immoral*.  Academics are the only ones who are real composers because they don’t compromise their art through the vagaries of commerce, unlike those writing commercial music who are sellouts and are *therefore immoral*.

In defending pop music’s place in academia,  recently, I pointed out that pop music is the province of women and people of color in music, who have been traditionally excluded from the western canon.  And I was told this was a tired argument.

But it cannot be possibly as tired an argument as “so-and-so is immoral because his or her musical enterprise runs contrary to my True Vision of How Things Ought To Be For Everyone.”  Now *that* is a really damned.  Tired.  Argument.

In recent weeks I’ve been friended on facebook and just as quickly alienated those people who friended me assuming that they were my allies.  One correspondent assumed I would be on board with his bashing of the “kids these days” who don’t attend concerts to his satisfaction.  I pointed out that there may be valid reasons why the concert-music experience may not resonate with everyone today, particularly people who (like me) have some sort of disability, and I was lashed out at, by someone who (I think) otherwise assumed that my recent defenses of modernism made him an ally.  Likewise, another modernist accepted my facebook friend request, and apparently assumed I would be on board with the bashing of the “kids these days” and their legitimacy of pop music as an academic field of discourse.

I am grateful for the attention that seems to have been paid, and, by the way, since you’re reading this, thank you.  I appreciate it.  I really do.  But I think I’ve been misunderstood.

I defend modernism because my general principle is that of inclusion above all else.

When you say, writ large, pop music has no place in academic discourse, I’m out.

When you say, writ large, tonal music is the only valid form of musical expression, I’m out.

When you say, writ large, post-tonal music is the only truly progressive language of music, I’m out.

I’ve used my blog and posts on Stephen Soderberg’s music group to defend post-tonal music vigorously.  But the reasons why, I think, have been very much misunderstood.  It’s because right now post-tonal music is the one getting excluded.  It’s the one getting picked on.  It’s the one getting maligned, abused, and its exponents are the ones doing most of the suffering and experiencing most of the neglect.

If the shoe were on the other foot, like, say, if this were 1972, and tonal composer-academics couldn’t get a job, especially in particular regions of the country like the northeast, then, certainly, I would defend tonal music too and decry the wrongness of that situation.  And I certainly still hear grumblings from modernists about the immorality of tonal music and the pandering to the masses that it entails.  (I have expressed on Stephen Soderberg’s group that much functional tonality doesn’t interest me very much— but I certainly don’t think a composer would be immoral for composing it, as so many cranky modernists seem to believe.)

The equation of aesthetic preference and mode of compensation for music-making with morality is ridiculous.  It needs to end.  I am constantly amazed at how many of my concert music colleagues will decry Republican and right-wing talking points about public morality to no end, and then turn around and castigate other music-makers for the way they write their music or earn their livings.

This is not to say that each and every aesthetic choice and mode of compensation is unproblematic.  The fact that the commercial music establishment does support an awful morass of music that is self-evidently without very much artistic merit is probably something that cannot be denied.  (But I am still careful to say “probably” because even this claim is very subjective and very complex.)  But to say, writ large, all popular music is de facto immoral because it conflates the commercial enterprise with the artistic one— that’s simply tarring with too broad a brush for this writer and composer to accept.  Nor can I accept the proposition that all commercial music is devoid of artistic merit in and of itself.  There is some that has obvious artistic merit, and what does, deserves a place at the academic table.  And so does modernism, which never should have been kicked to the curb in the first place.

It takes big people to start sticking up for others.  But I can tell you from personal experience (yes, anecdotal evidence though it may be) the day I started concerning myself far less with the Robert Gross Famous Composer Theorist Special Person enterprise, and far more with sticking up for women composers, composers of color, disabled composers, and composers who are experiencing one form of unfair marginalization or another— that day was the day I started to find (my assessment as a “grim” pessimist notwithstanding) actual happiness in this crazy-making world of concert music where so many people are so self-evidently unhappy.

We need big people for a big, pluralistic world.  Go start embracing some composers whose aesthetic choices are not your own.  Show a little respect for someone who makes a living in music in a way that you do not.  You know what’s really hard?  Making a living at music.  That’s really hard.  Anyone that can do it has a small modicum of my respect, however they do it.  So long as composers are not tossing kittens into bags and throwing them into the river as performance art pieces, we need to have perspective on whether or not any actual harm is being done to anyone.

I know music is deeply personal, and we all want our personal musical enterprise to be “right.”  But the rightness of your vision is not contingent on the wrongness of someone else’s.  It’s really not.

Be big.  Celebrate the difference.

-Robert Gross














Atheist Fail on Paris

I saw someone tweet, “Stop praying for Paris.  Religion is the problem.”

Okay, fine, but, you see, to us atheists, facts matter.  And we don’t have all the facts yet.  It’s jumping to a conclusion that the Paris attacks are religiously motivated.

Cool your jets, atheists.

Plus, can’t we just let people have a little bit of their grieving space first before making the “big point”?

I certainly do wish the gun nuts would do that.

-Robert Gross

Most People Like Post-Tonal Music

I had the misfortune to have lunch with an actual cognitive scientist from Canada— I don’t remember his name— who trotted out the same solipsistic arguments.  He hated post-tonal music and tried to argue the point that post-tonal music is completely invalid and cognitive science shows us so.  That tonal music is inherently biological and hard-wired into our brains.  That the human brain is incapable of understanding post-tonal music because it does not conform to the inherent biological hard-wired and proven-by-cognitive-science syntax that we need to truly understand and appreciate music.

Me: Okay, then, why do *I* like post-tonal music?

Him: I don’t know.  Most people don’t.

Me: Sure they do.

Him: Really?

Me: Sure.  Any time you watch a horror movie or science fiction film and post-tonal music appears, people understand it and love it.

Him: Oh, well, then, it goes to show that post-tonal music can’t communicate a full range of human emotions, certainly not any positive ones, like love.

Me: But that’s not what you said.  You said it wasn’t *understandable*.  That cognitive science proves it’s incomprehensible.  Now you’re backtracking, conceding the point that it is comprehensible, and now saying that it’s merely incapable of showing a full range of emotions.  Well, so is tonality.  You can’t express terror or alien invasions in D major, can you?

Him: Awkward change of subject.

Completely frustrating and impassive conversation for the rest of lunch.  We were never in touch again.

I find it amazing how many legitimate so-called scientists want to throw actual science, logic and reason out the window and instead use their authority as scientists to make an argument-by-authority to validate their prejudices about music.  Many of them love tonal music dearly; it’s so sacred to them that they are willing to absolutely and utterly upend what they know they should be saying and doing as scientists on the subject— to confirm that music is complex and even complex, post-tonal music probably has a logic and syntax that is innately comprehensible to the brain, or at least acknowledge that the jury is still out on the question— and instead go into full-on worship mode at the altars of Beethoven and Brahms busts.  Many of them won’t begin to concede to others the same kind of faith-based tunnel visions when it comes to other people’s worship of gods and practices of religions that they reserve for themselves when it comes to the worship of tonal classical music.

I know I’m out of lock step with the vast majority of people in western culture, but I find it very difficult to listen to 90% major-minor, 7% diminished and 3% augmented as my harmonic palette for forty-five minutes, or an hour, or three hours. I just can’t. Post-tonal music drives other people nuts with its complexity. Tonal music drives me nuts with its paucity— its paucity of harmonic choices. I get so bored with functional tonality. I really, really, truly do. I know in some circles in concert music culture it’s basically farting in church to acknowledge that common practice period music doesn’t really do it for you. But there are a lot of us out here, more than you might think, who became attracted to concert music because of all that stuff that happened *after* 1900, not before, and who just sort of nod along and pay lip service when everyone else drones on and on and on about the greatness of Brahms, or even Mahler, whom we’re supposed to get excited about because he ended movements in different keys than he began them in.

So is there something wrong with my brain then, because I prefer music that gives me a richness of harmonic experience? Because the harmonic dimension is that important to me? I know that even the great 20th and 21st century composers say, dutifully, that we need to respect, know and even love the common practice period masters. I’ll concede the respect and the knowing. But I cannot love music that is ubiquitously triadic in its harmonic constructions and never anything else for any great length of time.