Thursday, December 27, 2007

Who do pop critics always like the worst classical music?

According to Matthew Guerreri in slate, the piece above "still stuns with its uncompromising fervor, its jagged utterances piling up with the lengthy, sustained intensity of a hellfire preacher." Uh-huh.

Okay, you can file this piece under uncalled-for snark, I suppose (as my enemies do most of my reviews!), but the eulogies after the passing of Karlheinz Stockhausen brought a familiar thought to mind: why did so many pop critics and listeners like this particular classical composer so much? After all, his works have practically vanished from the played repertoire; I can't recall hearing a Stockhausen piece for years, and as he became less fashionable after the 60's and 70's, I was happy to give up on the pretense of caring about him, as in purely musical terms, he never struck me as very interesting. Most of the classical world seemed to agree; and of course Stockhausen became weirder as he got older, claiming that he had been possessed by beings from different planets, and then made some notoriously nutty comments about 9/11, which he called "the biggest work of art there has ever been." (He insisted later his remarks had been taken out of context, but really, the context was only somewhat exculpatory.)

Still, Dario Fo made even crazier remarks about 9/11, and that doesn't mean we should ignore his work. Is Stockhausen worth re-assessing? I tried to get into a few of the pieces again after his death, but alas, I still find him dull - but I can see that to those who ponder music conceptually, he will remain a kind of pathfinder (in rather the same way, perhaps, that Hauptmann remains close to the hearts of some theatre critics). Stockhausen was a famous earlier noodler in electronic music ("Kontakte," above), and was the first to use "samples" in his works (in "Hymnen"), all while pushing Cage's ideas about randomness and contingency farther than Cage ever did. Stockhausen began to toy with incorporating the acoustics of the hall (or studio) into his scores; he sometimes used a graphic notation which allowed his music to be read upside down, or right-to-left, or begun on any page the performer chose; works were dedicated to mathematical manipulations of timbre, or pitch, or duration; other scores included embedded maps of the Alps; finally, he settled on a kind of Germanic minimalism called "formula composition," which essentially doomed his last works (the enormous, unfinished opera cycle Licht) to the dustbin of auditory history.

But you can see how all this activity would be catnip to pop theorists: it subjugates actual musical values to a pseudo-Asian, pseudo-democratized, pseudo-quantum-mechanical conceptual superstructure. And it's this superstructure that pop theorists crave; it's what they lean on to give their own music heft. Because let's face it, pop music is simple; simplistic, even. It's not "thick" the way classical music is. It depends on an associative nimbus of revolution, or rebellion, or druggy transcendence or what have you, to give it status. And of course Stockhausen supplied this in spades (admittedly, he did so guilelessly, in fact with hilarious earnestness). His work may be a snooze musically, but conceptually it's a hell of a ride. So pop critics don't listen to the music; they listen to the concept instead. (The same concepts, of course, prop up much rickety contemporary art - hence the strange synergy between the iPod and the gallery.)

I suppose I could do the same thing, but frankly (if you haven't been able to tell by now) I'm happy being an elitist; it's more fun to appreciate great art and simply enjoy pop art; I don't really see what the point is of pretending that pop art is "great," too. And at any rate, if pop critics imagine their intellectual stance makes them "of the people," I've got a whole other post to deflate that delusion - essentially, trying to elevate pop tropes via pompous extra-musical concepts is the most offensive kind of snobbery there is. But shave somebody's head and throw on some skinny glasses, and sooner or later they'll be babbling on about how they were "blown away" by listening to paint dry on video.


  1. Actually, you're right - he's not; but he writes like one. And anyway, that was just a catchier headline than "Why do classical music critics who write like pop critics always like the worst classical music?" which, you know, is a little long.