Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra: making great music personal

in the minds of the musicians

on audience perceptions of "modern and contemporary" music

January 03, 2008

Continued from re: a climate of fear – a response from Jeffrey Kahane

A few years ago, when I was still music director of the Santa Rosa Symphony, I gave a talk on programming at our large local retirement community, the source of one of the orchestra’s largest, most loyal and (with notable exceptions) musically conservative constituencies. I had decided to do an experiment in the form of playing a little trick on the audience. (I had, incidentally, absolutely no doubt about the outcome of the experiment, but nonetheless could not contain my glee when the outcome was made known to the astonished “victims” of my well-intended prank, many of whom literally gasped when the results were announced.)

I had brought with me recordings of music by 9 or 10 composers, from each of whose work I had carefully chosen an excerpt of one or two minutes. The list included Bach, Beethoven, Stravinsky, Schoenberg and John Adams, among others. I asked the audience of about 200 to number each of the excerpts as they heard them and then rank them in order of preference.

As I fully expected, Schoenberg (who was represented by his early masterpiece “Gurrelieder”), Stravinsky (“The Firebird”) and John Adams (the opening pages of the 2nd movement of “Naïve and Sentimental Music”) overwhelmingly won out over both Bach and Beethoven, who ranked near the bottom, and was represented by the fugue from one of his greatest and most challenging works, the “Hammerklavier” Sonata in B flat, op. 106.

Now, obviously, I could easily have created the exact opposite result had I chosen different examples, but the point that I wanted to make to the audience (and I think I succeeded) is that music-lovers (like the symphony-goer mentioned in one post who cancels his tickets whenever a piece of new music is on the program) often make assumptions about what they do and don’t like, or want to hear, based on pre-conceived notions about what a given composer (or stylistic period) sounds like, and, in so doing, deprive themselves of the opportunity to expand their musical horizons and encounter wondrous new regions of the musical universe of whose existence they may not have even been aware.

(Incidentally, I once did a similar experiment at a Santa Rosa Symphony pre-concert lecture at which I played ten radically different excerpts, all by Stravinsky, ranging from “Firebird” to his very late music, and asked the audience to guess the composer of each excerpt. By the time we got to the last excerpt I had a list of something like 30 names spanning a period of 150 years. Again, there was a collective gasp of astonishment when I revealed that the same composer had written all ten works.)

Which brings me back to what that sparked my particular interest in this discussion, namely the reaction of my friend Kevin Puts – whose music I have championed for a number of years with great joy and who is one of my favorite composers working today – to John Adams’ remarks to students at Peabody Conservatory.

I have had the privilege of knowing John Adams for almost 35 years, first as one of my teachers at the San Francisco Conservatory, and then as colleague and friend. I would never presume to speak for Mr. Adams, and want to underscore that my response to his reported remarks is entirely my own, and, obviously, I wasn’t there so can’t judge the context in which his remarks were made. However, I can’t help but wonder if his remarks to the students might not have been somewhat misconstrued.

I can’t imagine that Adams, of all people, would discourage composers from writing from the heart, or from writing to reach and move their audiences. He is one of the least dogmatic, least elitist, least ideological human beings and composers I have ever known – which is ironic, as his work has on occasion been at the center of some ferocious ideological battles.

Adams knows as well as anyone that Beethoven wrote a substantial amount of music (like the Hammerklavier Fugue, or the Grosse Fugue for String Quartet, for example) that many of Beethoven’s most passionate devotees find as challenging to listen to and difficult to understand as the audiences did when these pieces were literally “contemporary” (and modern!). I wonder if perhaps the point that Mr. Adams was making in comparing young composers to “puppies” who are eager to please was that many young composers today may be afraid to challenge, provoke, or disturb their audiences AS WELL AS “giving them what they want.” It’s not, in other words, an either/or proposition. To put it in terms any dog-lover would understand, every puppy worth his salt is capable of both tugging at our hearts and driving us to distraction, of being utterly endearing and then proceeding to chew up the couch and strew trash all over the kitchen floor.

To be continued…

Read the original post a climate of fear


As my earlier comments were my first ever responses to a blog, I'm not entirely convinced that this impersonal medium does enough to dispel the feeling that disagreements are personal; this is no more evident than where it concerns any defense of John Adams (whose music I have long admired, as well as your own wonderful performances and recordings-especially those of Bach and Mozart). Yet I cannot help but worry that when the argument shifts to the distinction between modern and Modernism it threatens to veer off course. The problem is not that such a distinction is not noteworthy, but that it provides too handy a way to explain to audiences how to categorize composers-audiences, to be sure, which themselves could be modernist may feel it to be condescending that we composers and presenters presume they are not. On top of which definitions of the modernist conspire against any reasonable discussion when written as if taken from a horoscope or Baedeker: the modernist penchant is to celebrate innovation as a mark of vitality... Modernists live in the present with an enthusiasm requiring audacity, high self-regard and self-consciousness... (Taruskin). One could write more critically about modernists as Lee Siegel does in his review (NY Times 12/30/07) of Peter Gay's new book "Modernism" (Norton & Co.), as artists who emphasized the idiosyncrasy of personal vision as a way to flee from [Romantic] subjectivity, dissolving personality in a creative vision that was nevertheless uniquely personal.

But interestingly, the argument set out for music's mode of communication is by respondents who are primarily its creators. The audience has abstained from participating while we composers battle this one out, marginalized while we remain convinced that the heart-on-the-sleeve approach to composing music (or as Rousseau famously said: "I feel my heart and therefore know humankind.") wins their sympathy. It certainly does not seem inconceivable that our audience can appreciate the ironies expressed by Flaubert better than we, and therefore also able to say that masterpieces are stupid. Perhaps, because the moment when Adorno opined that poetry cannot be possible after the Holocaust was not ever a historical fact, we can afford to be smug. But that smugness is not unlike the smog that enshrouds us and provides the celebrated light Hollywood saves for its endings so we can walk out of the darkness affirming our faith. Adorno, who could only have made his epigrammatic remark while it was still possible to read Paul Celan was not blinded by that light that bestows upon us such a superiority so as to privilege us with stupidity. We have, without irony, literally crippled communication. Kevin does not walk alone into that abyss where the larger than life ontological works (products of nature), "commonly considered 'great' (Beethoven 9, Hamlet, The Rite of Spring, To Kill a Mockingbird, Bach b minor Mass, Moby Dick, Mozart Marriage of Figaro, The Ring Cycle)" are synonymous with masterpiece-of which every quality, nevertheless, exists even in Flaubert's short, perfect, story "A simple heart."

  • —Daniel Rothman, January 03, 2008 09:26 pm

Daniel - welcome to the blogosphere. I sincerely hope that this discussion hasn't put you off the medium for good ;)

I can assure you that, having read many (and participated in a few) heated exchanges by blog that, though the opinions and ideas expressed are deeply personal - I mean, come on, wouldn't they have to be for any of us to bother filling out the comment box? - disagreements are almost always just that: Schisms among ideas, not people.

That said, I'd like to make this discussion even more personal, but in a different sense. From your responses, I gather that you are a composer, and I wonder if you would share with us what *your* approach to composing is. Do you compose to please your own ear? To express specific emotions and/or ideas, regardless of pleasing aesthetics? Do you try to imagine how your audience will react and whether they will interpret your music as you intended? Do you feel the audience has a role in the creation of music? Your responses to any of these questions would be fascinating and valuable to the discussion. Other creative artists out there are more than welcome to jump in as well.

  • —Michelle Weger, January 04, 2008 02:27 pm

I think that Jeffrey Kahane's point is extremely well-taken, and one of the things I was gesturing at in my post to the other thread. Great music challenges AND pleases the audience; it pleases them in unexpected ways.

To address Michelle Weger's invitation, for me composition is about wrestling with complex formal problems. But, the solutions to the problems are meaningless if they do not speak deeply to me (and, in my experience, therefore to the audiene as well).

Consider, for instance, the complex imitative counterpoint of Ockegehm. The beauty of the resulting music is what makes the structure interesting. It is what motivates us to ask: how was that made? And it elicits our wonder at the complex and rigid structures underlying it. Achieving fluidity and grace within that structure creates interest. Structure without grace is, well, just structure.

I think of Brahms in the same way. For me, the power of his music is heightened by the rigorous formal and motivic structures he uses to contain it. I liken it to boiling water. Unrestrained, it billows out in steam. When constrained in a rigid structure, it attains explosive power.

  • —Peter Knell, January 04, 2008 03:49 pm

I think that any composer's answers to Michelle's much appreciated interest will always feel less than satisfactory for both the writer and the reader as long as the music itself remains unknown. While the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra has always been a source of tremendous enjoyment—due, in large part, to the rich intellectual and inquisitive spirit its members, such as Allen Vogel, with whom I have had some memorable discussions, and Jeffrey Kahane's direction, bring to its music making—contributions to the discussion by composers here seem constrained by a reactionary aesthetic outlook; torches are carried for some and used against others in an attempt to refine ideas, only to yield the incongruous result of restricting them: serial, 12-tone, and Schoenberg all used as derogatory signifiers. All this seems somehow antithetical to the spirit of art, where our minds should be as open as our hearts. Ironically, composers from Robert Ashley to Iannis Xenakis, who here might be vilified, are among the most open-minded, curious, and astute musical minds I have ever known. It requires as much for the commitment they've made, which has done nothing to diminish the lasting value of more traditional music that they respect. Somehow composers here seem far more threatened than perhaps the audiences to which they appeal. It need not be the case. Audiences to the Monday Evening Concert series will discover, in April, a very affable person in Helmut Lachenmann, whose music is more than equally compelling.

  • —Daniel Rothman, January 05, 2008 08:48 am

Daniel, your last post is wonderful. I'm not sure I either fully understand nor agree with all of it, but I will continue to think about it with pleasure. But why do you say (or was this intended ironically) that Adorno "could only have made his epigrammatic remark while it was still possible to read Paul Celan"? I keep a copy of Celan by my bedside and read him frequently.

Purely as an aside, and by way of an entirely unsolicited and cheerfully gratuitous swipe at Adorno, I confess that while am in awe of his erudition and his immense musical and philosophical gift, and think he got a great many things right,I find his essays on popular music and jazz to be lamentable and unintentionally hilarious. (not to mention his take on Sibelius!)

Masterpieces may be stupid, but I still think they're masterpieces, be they humble or monumental. :)

....which makes me wonder, since you say that every quality of a masterpiece exists in Flaubert's "Un coeur simple", what are those qualities?

I have another lamentably long post on the way in the next day or two.


  • —Jeffrey Kahane, January 05, 2008 10:36 am

Somehow the masterpiece, as it seems commonly understood, sweeps away all particularities before scale-Moby Dick and Beethoven's Ninth, unarguably among the heights of our civilization's achievements, are monumental. "A simple heart" appears more modest but nevertheless contains, with its exquisitely wrought and economical language, a microcosm of complex relationships both human and divine. As it leads its reader through an extraordinarily wide intellectual, emotional, and psychological range with such lovely restraint we hardly notice, its parable about faith also speaks directly to the rhetoric of the masterpiece, which is typically affirmed if not implicit in its message than at least explicit by its very existence. Faith, as Flaubert reminds us, is a candle that burns from both sides. My favorite recording of Beethoven's Ninth is by Furtwängler with Schwarzkopf at Bayreuth in 1951. Irony protects us, I'm certain, as it did Adorno from really believing we are less human after the Holocaust; of course he could not not have known Celan's poetry, whose readings were produced by the German broadcasting system in the 1950s. But all I can say about Adorno on jazz and popular music is wie deutsch ist es! By-the-way, I highly recommend Julian Barnes's "Flaubert's Parrot."

Thank you for this dialog.


  • —Daniel Rothman, January 06, 2008 11:45 am

  • —Gernot Wolfgang, January 06, 2008 03:21 pm

"Irony protects us, I'm certain, as it did Adorno from really believing we are less human after the Holocaust"

I think not. Members of my family perished in Terezin and Auschwitz, and my grandfather was interned in Buchenwald before escaping Germany to come to this country. I can only speak for myself, but I do not require irony to protect me from anything, and categorically reject the notion that "we" (not sure who "we" are, though) are less human after the Holocaust.

"of course [Adorno] could not have known Celan's poetry, whose readings were produced by the German broadcasting system in the 1950s."

Adorno did indeed know Celan's poetry intimately and admired it profoundly. He called him "the greatest exponent of hermetic poetry in present-day Germany." In fact, Celan was one of only two post-war authors (the other being Samuel Beckett) about whom Adorno wrote in his posthumously published "Aesthetic Theory"...

I also must respectfully disagree that masterpieces, as "commonly understood" sweep away all particularities before scale. I can think of quite a few works of Bach, Chopin, Mozart, Brahms, Webern, Schoenberg, to name just a few, whose scale is at the very opposite end of the spectrum epic or monumental works like Beethoven 9 or Moby Dick, and which I would nonetheless unhesitatingly characterize as masterpieces.

  • —Jeffrey Kahane, January 07, 2008 10:37 am

I think it must have been my own confusing double negative, when I wrote that Adorno could not not have known Celan (I'm sorry). But we do at least agree about that. And about the limits of irony's protection-afterall there was and remains no form of protection against man's inhumanity. But even for people such as Victor Klemperer, whose "Lingua Tertii Imperii" (Language of the Third Reich), language was a personal way to cope with those horrors. There is no doubt, for me, that the music we can appreciate is a testament to something Adorno, too, believed in. What I mean by irony protects us, is that it enables us to see the complexities of our lives beyond the things we take on faith. The French Philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty, in his last, unfinished work "The Visible and the Invisible," wrote "We see things themselves, the world is what we see: the formulae of this kind express a faith common to the natural man and the philosopher-the moment he opens his eyes; they refer to a deep-seated set of mute "opinions" implicated in our lives. But what is strange about this faith is that if we seek to articulate it into theses or statements, if we ask ourselves what is this 'we', what 'seeing' is, and what is a 'thing' or 'world' is, we enter into a labyrinth of difficulties and contradictions."


  • —Daniel Rothman, January 07, 2008 11:28 am

I suppose you are right that irony can in some circumstances protect us "by enabling us to see the complexities of our lives beyond what we take on faith." On the other hand, irony can, paradoxically, also blind us...

But I am getting seriously out of my depth here: I have to remind myself quite often that I am a musician, not a philosopher!


  • —Jeffrey Kahane, January 07, 2008 03:33 pm

Wow, when you smart guys start letting it fly, the room really starts to spin. ;)

In all seriousness (okay semi) I think the most resonant thing I've read in this fascinating discussion is Kevin's semi-serious retraction of the debate. Perhaps it is best for us composers to clam up and just write. Talking about it never seems to come to any satisfactory conclusion, although the different perspectives are undoubtedly fascinating as is the intellectual facility of those posting. But talking about music always seems a little like talking about food: it's a really hard thing to put into words. People taste the same foods entirely differently and so too, do they hear music differently.

But, to not take my own advice, I did have this reaction to the topic which I'll share. I've spent my musical life composing for film, a pursuit I'm sure some here would not see as all that worthwhile. But I love it and it suits me. My point though is that it is an odd thing to compose over and over for a purpose decidedly NOT one's own. Structure is given, intent is dictated, pacing and tempi are often predetermined, and in fact in extreme cases sometimes melodic material is inflicted.

Hollywood hi-jinks aside though, I bring this up only to say that when I do have the opportunity to write concert music and have the fetters removed, the one thing, the only thing that concerns me is pleasing my musical self. I think perhaps this is in direct reaction to the utilitarian musical life I lead. And while I certainly hope the audience will like what I've written, in the end, it is an entirely selfish exercise. I compose what I want to hear. What reactions follow are of some consequence to me, but have nothing to do with my motivation in creating the work.

Now, I realize that not having to depend on concert music may allow me the room to not get tied into a particular approbation. But in my admitted naiveté, I find it remarkable and yes even cynical, that a concert composer would sit down to write a piece, calculating the response he wants from the audience. I just can't believe anything great would ever come from such a thought process.

  • —Joel McNeely, January 08, 2008 12:44 pm

Thank you Joel McNeely for your input. (By the way, Brian Langsbard is a good friend and I believe you know him quite well). I have been thinking about writing something so much like your entry it's alarming (I would have likened musical tastes to food as well, believe it or not!). It goes without saying that those of us who spend our lives and make our livelihood writing music (and believe me, I have GREAT respect for film composers) just write want we want to hear at the end of the day, and interestingly, one of my students said he heard John Adams advise doing just that when asked the question, "what advice can you give aspiring young composers?" So it all comes around to my first blog entry.

The problem is, we are always asked to TALK!! Talk about your philosophies, your aesthetic, where do you think music is going, what do you 'believe' in musically...so we all have to scramble to codify and answer for the act that we perform every day, an act as natural to us as making a ham sandwich, so that we can sound like we know something, as if it weren't obvious enough by the way the music sounds and the fact we keep getting hired to write pieces. It's a remnant from the era when academia was the support system for most all work in "contemporary concert music." I really think the analogy to food is apt and I have often thought of it. All philosophy and meaning aside, I have to use certain chords and keys and melodies etc because they are the ones I love and want to "eat." I love pieces that move from tension or ambiguity to resolution and consonance. I really don't care if this means I am naively communicating a blind faith in the human race, if my work is devoid of the irony I am somehow how required to incorporate.

This is really interesting and thank you all for continuing to write! I am going to have my students at Peabody read this whole blog and we're going to have a nice talk about it! They have to know what they are getting into...

  • —Kevin Puts, January 08, 2008 09:44 pm

Amen to your comment, too, Kevin. And, just by way of maybe closing the loop a little, I thought you'd be interested to know that not long ago, when I was conducting one of John Adams' major symphonic works, I told him that one of the things that moved me about that particular work was what I perceived as its complete lack of an "ironical stance." To which he said something on the order of, "yes, absolutely."

  • —Jeffrey Kahane, January 09, 2008 10:43 am

  • —Gernot Wolfgang, January 09, 2008 02:55 pm

To write about the futility of talking about music... now is that ironic?

Certainly it seems an activity more appropriate to a university than a conservatory. Having taught at the former, I always envied the latter for what I imagined was its freedom to develop craft and art, (as opposed to the intellectual discourse about craft and art.)

  • —Anonymous, January 09, 2008 11:05 pm

Since two of the commenters to this post compared music to food, I feel compelled to note that, in our very first Sound Investment "recruitment" letter, we used the rise of the Food Network to illustrate how people are naturally curious about the creative process.

And speaking of Sound Investment (I know, I'm shameless) and its focus on TALKING...it may well be a vestige of academia, but I think of it more like a PBS documentary, where people - particularly those without specialized knowledge of music - can learn about *why* they should listen to a particular piece of music, not just *what* it is they are hearing.

  • —Anonymous, January 10, 2008 07:13 pm

Of course I think communication and talking is important, and if what we composers have to say is of some interest to the "consumer" than I am all for it (though, personally, I never think I have many interesting things to say about my work!) But there is so much talk of explaining "why" a work is important to hear, and "presenting new music in the right way" to the untrained public ear...it makes me a little skeptical. Shouldn't a work's importance and merits be abundantly clear simply by listening to the music?

  • —Kevin Puts, January 12, 2008 03:17 pm

Throwing some spaghetti against the wall, here, but....

I wonder if there's this anxiety that we're doing something wrong, that, if a composer today were as great as Beethoven, then she'd be as famous as Beethoven, so we must all be doing something wrong.

If that's the assumption, maybe we're overlooking the effects of some wide-ranging changes in western culture on the profile of the people who buy concert tickets, e.g.:

* the explosion of a middle class with disposable income - and without instruction/indoctrination in art music (and that is not intended to blame the audience; it's to consider our expectations in a different light)

* the advent of recordings and subsequent interest in collecting old music (Liszt was not competing directly with Mozart - or with the younger Liszt - for audience members)

* the diminished role of the Church in the musical life of the masses (no pun intended) and, generally, the diminished role of received values, musical and otherwise

* amplification, visual media, youth culture, and on and on

Perhaps it's not too much of an exaggeration to say that the animal we call a composer today did not exist during the common practice period.

There *was* no vocation of composer separate from that of performer, no vocation involving twenty years of schooling, no vocation to write for instruments that had already been mature technology with their own literature for 100, 150, even 200 years....

And, well, maybe this'll be one of those stretches of musical history that future textbooks call "transitional." :)

I would like to concur with my fellow composers who find it difficult to talk meaningfully about our music. One of the stupidest assignments I have ever been given was for my dissertation: to compose a 15-minute piece and then to write a paper that "adequately described the piece". It is my strong opinion that if a piece can adequately be described in words, it is not worth hearing. Likewise, I find the practice of writing proposals for commission grants to be odious. It favors music that can be described or has extra-musical associations. If only the juries would just listen to the composers music, pick the one that speaks to them, and let them write.

I think we are trained today as artists to cultivate an elevated rhetoric that can signal sophistication, or perhaps just sound and fury. When I consider the composers who speak most strongly to me, I find they speak clearly and compellingly, without pretense. (I hesitate to name them for fear of betraying my reactionary aesthetic outlook). Consider, for instance, the opening of Petrouchka - revolutionary, perhaps, but clear, uncluttered, and effective. Or the Rite of Spring. Or, really, any work that has seriously entered the repertoire.

  • —Peter Knell, January 18, 2008 12:03 am

To write well about music is a challenge that is not often met successfully. However, when done really well, it can serve some important purposes. Alex Ross's recent book about the music of the 20th century called "The Rest Is Noise" (and much of his writing both on his blog and in the New Yorker) I find both illuminating and deeply inspiring. As Emanuel Ax said, it makes you want to run out and listen to every single piece he writes about.

Charles Rosen's "The Classical Style" is another example of writing about music I have returned to over and over again and continue to learn, year after year, since I first read it more than thirty years ago, as is Roger Sessions exquisite little book called "The Musical Experience: Composer, Performer, Listener" which can be read in an afternoon. I think it should be required reading for every student and lover of music....

I love reading the writings of Copland, Berlioz, Schumann as well, to name just a few. Words about music can only go so far, but they can provide wondrous windows into a work of music or into the mind of a composer.

  • —Jeffrey Kahane, January 18, 2008 11:44 am

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