Join 3,375 readers in helping fund MetaFilter (Hide)


Showoffs and knucklebusters
January 6, 2007 8:54 AM   Subscribe

What's the most difficult piano piece? Opinions vary. Is it La Campanella, written by Liszt to show off what only he could do? (performance, score) Is it Balakirev's Islamey, which even Balakirev struggled to play? (performance, score) Or Ravel's Gaspard de la Nuit, written to top Islamey? (performance, score) Does Godowsky double his points by reconfiguring the already-difficult Chopin for the left hand? (performance) And if someone plays all four hours of Sorabji's Opus Clavicembalisticum, written across four staves to fit the extra notes, will anyone listen? (perfomance excerpts, score excerpts)
posted by argybarg (110 comments total) 67 users marked this as a favorite

 
Note: Let's all acknowledge now that virtuosity does not equal artistry, difficulty does not equal quality, and some of these are just showoffy novelty numbers. But they are fun to watch, even if only a Guiness Book sort of way.
posted by argybarg at 8:56 AM on January 6, 2007


Does toy piano count? Or player piano? If so, then Conlon Nancarrow's pieces might be up there in the "most difficult" zone...
posted by flapjax at midnite at 9:06 AM on January 6, 2007


While I wouldn't propose it as the most difficult piece, check out the torturous hand-crossings Webern asks for in his Op 27 Variations.
posted by Wolfdog at 9:08 AM on January 6, 2007


This is cool. :D
posted by thirteenkiller at 9:09 AM on January 6, 2007


bloody wankery
posted by cortex at 9:13 AM on January 6, 2007


imho, Gaspard de la Nuit is the ultimate in virtiousity + artistry.

On another note :) one can argue about the difference between the diffiiculty of a piece versus the virtuosity required to play it. E.g. Gaspard indeed requires great virtuousity. On the other hand, any mistake or lack of artistry in a Mozart Sonata, or to go the extreme, a Satie piece stands out like a sore thumb.
posted by allelopath at 9:22 AM on January 6, 2007


There are lots of modern pieces like Sorabji's that have loads of notes and chords all over the piano -- it's not difficult to write something that's difficult to play.

Personally I don't think La Campanella is nearly in the same league of difficulty as Gaspard (particularly its 3rd piece, Scarbo), but they are quite different playing styles, so what's hardest for one pianist may not be the same as what's hardest for the next. I think that's one of the reasons you get so much debate about this.

The other piece that gets brought up often in these lists is the Rachmaninov's 3rd concerto, but a lot of the difficulty with that is the pure stamina needed to keep hammering out those chords for 45 minutes.
posted by chrismear at 9:24 AM on January 6, 2007


One of my favorite virtuoso performances is Cziffra's interpretation of Liszt's Grand Gallop Chromatique.
posted by The Confessor at 9:27 AM on January 6, 2007


Great post, argybarg. Thanks!
posted by vacapinta at 9:29 AM on January 6, 2007


Good list--I think you should include some Messiaen, perhaps--if you want to perform his Turangalila Symphonie, there are only a handful of pianists in the world who have the piano part in their repertoire. Some Scriabin might make the cut, too, maybe from his Opus 8 (No. 12, IIRC, but IANAP).

I'd say it's definitely not the Liszt etude--I saw a 14 year old play the crap out of that piece at a summer music camp a couple of years ago (and it was a piece he "dusted off" for the recital, since he'd first learned it when he was twelve. Interestingly, he fingered a lot of the fast, repeated notes with only one finger--usually pianists use 2 or 3 fingers in succession to articulate notes that quickly. When my friend--his teacher at the camp--asked him how he learned to play with one finger that fast, he said "video games". Heh.) I'd think something like Liszt's Totentanz is harder than something like La Campanella.

One piece that's not technically difficult per se, but is enormously taxing and difficult to pull off in performance, is Steve Reich's Piano Phase.
posted by LooseFilter at 9:30 AM on January 6, 2007


Goodbye.
posted by emelenjr at 9:37 AM on January 6, 2007


emelenjr

I can play that fast.

I just can't play any music that fast.

:-p
posted by The Confessor at 9:46 AM on January 6, 2007


No, Conlon Nancarrow doesn't count!

(great stuff, though.)
posted by kozad at 10:04 AM on January 6, 2007


The links at the Opus Clavicembalisticum performance excerpts link don't work for me. Am I dumb?

I'm certainly mesmerized, excellent post!
posted by carsonb at 10:04 AM on January 6, 2007


I half expected that performance of Islamey to end with blood dripping off the piano keys.
posted by The Great Big Mulp at 10:34 AM on January 6, 2007


Gaspard de la Nuit is the only one of these pieces I actually enjoy listening to; that old guy playing it in the youtube video is kind of frightening, actually. Watching his hands, it doesn't even appear as if he's hitting the keys; could be the compressed video, though.

Great post!
posted by synaesthetichaze at 10:39 AM on January 6, 2007


Vlado Perlemuter isn't just playing Gaspard de la Nuit. He's playing it and chewing gum at the same time.
posted by weapons-grade pandemonium at 11:05 AM on January 6, 2007


What a great post. Thanks. I thought the woman playing the Lizst was incredible. And the subsequent links have been awesome.
posted by facetious at 11:16 AM on January 6, 2007


Why is it the norm, when talking about classical music, to ignore almost everything that has happened since about 1900? I'd venture that the most difficult pieces for just about any instrument have been written in the last 50-60 years.
posted by treepour at 11:19 AM on January 6, 2007


Ravel's Gaspard de la Nuit, written to top Islamey?
...
He's playing it and chewing gum at the same time.

I enjoy this piece more performed by Ivo Pogorelich, its a very dramatic interpretation.
posted by uni verse at 11:34 AM on January 6, 2007


treepour:

Good point, one made a few times in the forums I read. I think there are, naturally, varying definitions of "difficult." Most people think of atonal music as difficult in a way that tonal music isn't. The challenge in Godowsky's studies on Chopin, for instance, is to make them sound like music, to cohere and flow despite the maelstrom of notes. For better or worse, most people think of that as in impossible goal in atonal music anyway -- or at least too subtle for most listeners to recognize when the musician has accomplished it.

Personally, I find Wilhelm Kempff playing Beethoven's Moonlight Sonata to be one example of true virtuoso playing. Even beginners can play the 1st movement, but only the finest pianist can play it with the evenness, restraint and judgement Kempff shows here.

But the tricky, heroic key-pounding stuff can be fun to watch. It's also interesting to imagine what sort of levels of devotion people have to reach to play those sorts of pieces from memory.
posted by argybarg at 11:40 AM on January 6, 2007


Why is it the norm, when talking about classical music, to ignore almost everything that has happened since about 1900? I'd venture that the most difficult pieces for just about any instrument have been written in the last 50-60 years.

It's quite true that contemporary music gets ignored in discussions and I also agree that most of the most technically demanding (and therefore virtuosic) music has been written since WWII. I'm trying to think of examples of very virtuosic contemporary piano music. Off the top of my head I'd say that Michael Finnissey's piano music, the Ligeti Piano Etudes, Boulez' Sonatas, Stockhausen's Klavierstucken, Messiaen's Vingt Regards... and Rzewski's The People United... would be good examples.
posted by ob at 11:45 AM on January 6, 2007


I get carpal tunnel syndrome just looking at those pieces.
posted by philosophistry at 11:46 AM on January 6, 2007


Try playing John Cage's 4:33. It's all about the temptation there.
posted by wheelieman at 11:56 AM on January 6, 2007


The best thing about those YouTube links are the very un-YouTube comments below them.

Walter1958: "Listen to Michelangeli's live version.{London}Also the 1937 and the 1954 recordings with Gieseking.Both are artists of inexplicable gifts.There transcendental precise pianism relished every shade of Ravel's enigma and ambivalence.Nothing like it!!"

...and so on. There may be hope yet.
posted by bicyclefish at 12:02 PM on January 6, 2007


argybarg: Wow.
wow.
wow.

posted by uni verse at 12:18 PM on January 6, 2007


Superb post, and I can't think of a better use for YouTube than allowing us to see the difficulty of this difficult music. Well done, argybarg. (And the rest of you who keep adding links to the thread!)
posted by languagehat at 12:21 PM on January 6, 2007


I'll put my vote and thanks in for amazing post as well. Watching Dong Hyek Lim getting so much enjoyment out of playing something so complex really added to his perfomance of the Islamey piece.
posted by Zack_Replica at 12:40 PM on January 6, 2007


That first La Campanella performance link...

Wow. Just fucking wow. I tried to write this comment with that playing in the backround, but I kept having to flip back to it because my brain couldn't parse that it was being played by a single person without actually watching it.
posted by Cyrano at 12:45 PM on January 6, 2007


I'm surprised no one has mentioned Nancarrow.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 12:48 PM on January 6, 2007


Read the comments to turn that surprise upside down.
posted by Falconetti at 12:57 PM on January 6, 2007


Oh, come on, Nancarrow was only mentioned by two people; that's almost the same as "no one," right?
posted by languagehat at 1:04 PM on January 6, 2007


You're right; mea culpa.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 1:12 PM on January 6, 2007


What about the piece that can only be played by a 12-fingered pianist as shown in this movie?
posted by The Deej at 1:17 PM on January 6, 2007


Great post! I took piano lessons for 8 years and won't ever play pieces like this, but I love them.
posted by CitrusFreak12 at 1:20 PM on January 6, 2007


I don't play piano, and I never have, but I enjoyed this post a lot. Thanks!
posted by Oobidaius at 1:38 PM on January 6, 2007


So this is the equivalent of "shredding' for electric guitars, eh? I don't remember a lot of talk about being a virtuoso in that thread...
posted by Justinian at 1:41 PM on January 6, 2007


Wow. Perlemuter is just amazing. He makes it looks so easy and painful. Thanks for posting that.
posted by Area Control at 1:55 PM on January 6, 2007


I went to music camp as a teenager and saw one of the kids there, no more than fourteen, play "La Campanella." It absolutely incredible. I was sitting next to another pianist, who muttered something along the lines of "I quit. I'm going to be a baseball player instead."

Very cool experience. There are almost certainly harder pieces to play - but "La Campanella" is so easy to listen to, and so grandiose, and just plain fun to watch.
posted by honeydew at 1:59 PM on January 6, 2007


Lovely, amazing, and a great use of YouTube. Thanks, argybarg!
posted by Alvy Ampersand at 2:21 PM on January 6, 2007


Justinian: So this is the equivalent of "shredding' for electric guitars, eh? I don't remember a lot of talk about being a virtuoso in that thread...
Um- big difference. One, guitar shredding is often deceptively easy, at least from the comments in that thread- i.e., that fingertapping allows for rapid arpeggiations and patterns that sound complex but are really just a few of the same riffs strung together over and over, but are easier than you'd think with practice. That's not really the case with the pieces described above- granted, with a lot of Hanon and Czerny practice, a lot of scales/runs are easier, but there's not really a good practice for banging out the massive and rapid chords in the Ossia of the Rachmaninoff 3rd, Mov't 1.

Second, most of these pieces, especially ones like La Campanella and the Rachmaninoff 3rd piano concerto, are very musical in themselves- they just happen to be fiendishly difficult to play. But they generally stand on their own as musical compositions.
honeydew: I went to music camp as a teenager and saw one of the kids there, no more than fourteen, play "La Campanella." It absolutely incredible. I was sitting next to another pianist, who muttered something along the lines of "I quit. I'm going to be a baseball player instead."
I don't really play any more, not since my teens, but I remember playing a Chopin polonaise at my 1-year piano recital (I was about 14 years old, so not La Campanella but not too shabby), and having a woman come up to me afterwards and say she'd being inspired to start taking lessons again. So the reaction to great playing and virtuoso really depends on whether you are playing for ego or for the music and love of it.

But yeah- anyone who has aspirations of competing in the bloodsport of classical music performance in its upper echelons should really rethink their career choices. It's brutally competitive. Play for a hobby or for fun... or just take up a less competitive instrument, like oboe. :)
posted by hincandenza at 2:42 PM on January 6, 2007


Granados: "Allegro de Concierto" don't know who the player is, but I got goosebumps a couple of times.
Albeniz: Iberia: "El Polo" Best when played by the great Alicia de Larocca, but this player's good.
Granada
posted by hortense at 2:49 PM on January 6, 2007


I have a copy of John Ogdon's performance of Sorabji's Clavicembalisticum which I've "listened" to once. I put that in quotes because the thing is nearly 5 freakin hours long. One of these days I plan to sit down and really pay attention to it for the whole piece, but it's just soooo long.
posted by papakwanz at 2:55 PM on January 6, 2007


I went to music camp as a teenager and saw one of the kids there, no more than fourteen, play "La Campanella." It absolutely incredible. I was sitting next to another pianist, who muttered something along the lines of "I quit. I'm going to be a baseball player instead."
posted by languagehat at 2:57 PM on January 6, 2007


Holy crap those are some fast fingers.

If stars can get body parts insured, I'd love to see the policy on a broken finger for these chaps.
posted by jmd82 at 2:59 PM on January 6, 2007


Albeniz: Asturias
posted by hortense at 3:00 PM on January 6, 2007


What struck me with the linked performance of La Campanella was the thinly-veiled sexism in about one-fifth of the comments.

I mean, she just played the hell out of one of the more difficult pieces in classical repetoire; you'd think she earned the right to be viewed as something more than a hot asian chick with a rack, and to be treated as more than fresh meat.
posted by The Confessor at 3:04 PM on January 6, 2007


Fantastic post! I've never really considered La Campanella to be one of the most difficult piano pieces (not to say it isn't quite difficult), for Liszt I've always thought Feux Follets was substantially trickier. I do agree that Gaspard de la Nuit is probably the best marriage of technical difficulty and musical depth (for those interested, look for a recording by Arturo Benedetti Michelangelo - impeccable technique and a beautiful interpretation).

I was a piano major in college, but never approached anything as difficult as these pieces. My most difficult pieces were Liszt's Vallée d'Obermann, which I actually managed to play almost well, and Chopin's Polonaise in F#m, which I pretty much butchered at every opportunity.
posted by adamp88 at 3:07 PM on January 6, 2007


[This is GOOD.] But I feel it's my duty to point to Woody Woodpecker's insane performance of Liszt's "Hungarian Rhapsody" in "Convict Concerto" (scroll down a bit), while the cops chase a bankrobber hiding in his piano.
posted by steef at 3:54 PM on January 6, 2007 [1 favorite]


Great post.
posted by bardic at 4:38 PM on January 6, 2007


treepour: Why is it the norm, when talking about classical music, to ignore almost everything that has happened since about 1900?

Well, for one thing, the golden age of the piano (so far) is the 19th century, and that's where the largest amount of great repertoire is from.* However, several works and/or composers from the 20th century have been mentioned in this thread (before your comment, even).

But your point is valid: it's a problem with classical music in general (and, as a conductor, a fight I'm on the front lines of, given my very contemporary sensibilities in both programming and performance).

*-I asked a colleague of mine, an extraordinary pianist, a similar question--why do such an overwhelming majority of concert pianists ignore 20th century repertoire in solo recitals?--and that was his answer. He also elaborated that tonal music is physically more pianistic than non-tonal, and thus more satisfying to play. YMMV.
posted by LooseFilter at 5:30 PM on January 6, 2007


wheelieman There was a time when I thought that 4:33 was someone's idea of a joke, and for all I know that's how Cage intended it. However, that illusion was shattered when I attended an otherwise excellent art / music program in which someone "performed" 4:33 apparently in all seriousness.

There's art, then there's pretentious BS, and I can't see 4:33 as anything but pretentious BS. The fact that he says he was inspired by "paintings" which were all one color and felt that music was falling behind painting in the avant garde race kinda backs up my opinion that its pretentious crap.

On topic, I was once told my a pianist friend of mine that the solo piano arrangement for Take Five was insanely difficult to play at proper speed.
posted by sotonohito at 5:37 PM on January 6, 2007


4:33 is not about "not playing anything," and it's not a joke. It's about paying attention to the sounds around you. But it's easy to mock "pretentious BS," so carry on.
posted by languagehat at 5:39 PM on January 6, 2007


There's art, then there's pretentious BS, and I can't see 4:33 as anything but pretentious BS.

Please don't blame the art for your inability to understand it.
posted by LooseFilter at 5:42 PM on January 6, 2007 [2 favorites]


I understand art, and I'm also capiable of recognizing that sometime otherwise sane artists make pretentious BS instead of art. If its art then other pieces of the same type will also be art, so if I wrote a "piece" called five minutes and fifty five seconds that'd also be art, right? And you say "well, of course not" please explain why not. If I'm producing exactly what he produced and the only reason its art when he does it, but not art when I do it is becuase of who he is, then it isn't art.

If you want to say "silence is really nifty" or "listen to the sounds around you" then you can say that. I got a crapload more from the Wikipedia article on 4:33 than I did "listening" to it.

I see 4:33 as being similar to the "art" that results when someone finds a pice of trash, puts a title on it, and calls it "ready made art", perhaps when Duchamp first did that it was interesting simply for the fact that it was different, but now its just an excuse for pretentious lazyness. "Oh, if you can't see the genius in my exhibition of a broken computer case you just don't get art you ignorant fool".

Art is fantastic. Weird, avante garde art is also fantastic. The problem, from my POV is that it seems to me that many people fall for the Emperor's new clothes con. Someone says "Look, here is X (where X is something involving no effort, expense, or skill to produce), its an amazing piece of art that common people can't understand, you understand it because you aren't common, right?" And many people promptly start saying "oh yes, that truly moves me, its such great art, oh, if only the poor common people could see how great this art is, but only us rare people of exceptional artistic taste can appreciate it!". I'm saying the emperor is naked.

Sometimes the people selling the emperor's new cloths aren't actually con artists. John Cage was an amazingly talented composer, he also seems to have had a lapse of sanity where 4:33 is concerned. Even the greats screw up sometimes.

There may be a statement in there somewhere that's worth making, but a statement is not, in and of itself, art and the best way to make a statement about the value of silence is not to "write" a "piece" which is nothing but silence.
posted by sotonohito at 6:15 PM on January 6, 2007 [1 favorite]


There may be a statement in there somewhere that's worth making, but a statement is not, in and of itself, art

Why not? Because you've decided that such an artistic statement is invalid.

and the best way to make a statement about the value of silence is not to "write" a "piece" which is nothing but silence.

Why not? Why is the word write in inverted commas? Why is the word piece in inverted commas? I think it's because you've decided right from the get-go that conceptual art is bullshit. That's your decision to make but you have to understand that this is not based on your experience or relationship with the piece of art itself, but based on your preconceived notions of what art is.

You've made the classic argument that people make when dismissing conceptual art, namely the: "I could do that" argument. Well, fine, write 4:33 before John Cage wrote it. Think about why you're writing it and tell us what kind of statement you're making. I'd be very interested to know of your experience with the I-Ching and Eastern Philosophy in General and how that, combined with your seminal works for percussion ensemble and prepared piano, has lead you to this point. How your ideas of performance, the relationship between composer and performer, the relationship between performer and the audience and indeed what is a composer and what does it mean to write music informed this piece. 4:33 is a totally original artistic statement. Your piece written in 2007 would be, well a fake. A forgery. A weak redundant copy.

I should say that in defending 4:33, I do not write conceptual music, so I'm defending the piece on the basis that, in my opinion it's a very important artistic statement from a seminal 20C composer, not because I necessarily feel a kinship with conceptual art.
posted by ob at 6:38 PM on January 6, 2007 [1 favorite]


If I'm producing exactly what he produced and the only reason its art when he does it, but not art when I do it is becuase of who he is, then it isn't art.

Well, that's silly--if I invent the light bulb, can I patent it? No? Why not? Because Edison did it first. If you had written 4'33' first, you'd get the credit for the originality of your work.

the best way to make a statement about the value of silence...

You reveal your misunderstanding with that statement. 4'33" isn't about silence--it's about the work-concept in music, principally. If you don't understand the piece, it's difficult to criticize it effectively. No art is beyond criticism, but if you don't understand that which you wish to disparage, you risk sounding ignorant. Which, to me, is what your criticisms of this work have been so far.

Look, I'm totally with your general point w/r/t contemporary or modern art--there is a lot of bullshit in any field of creative endeavor, and a lot of sheep who will sound the praises of that which they don't understand, in order to gain acceptance or esteem or whatever, and we can but wait for time to (hopefully) sort the wheat from the chaff. BUT, there is also a whole lot of ignorant dismissal of great works of art because the viewer/listener doesn't understand the art itself! Much has been written, by experts in music, about Cage and about this piece specifically, that makes a strong case for its significance. If you want to criticize the piece, fine, but please do so from a place of understanding that which you seek to criticize.

On preview: ditto ob.
posted by LooseFilter at 6:41 PM on January 6, 2007


And I should add that it's OK by me to say "that may be a great piece of music, but I don't like it." As I tell my students all the time, don't confuse your opinion of a piece of music with its inherent value or quality.
posted by LooseFilter at 6:47 PM on January 6, 2007


I wouldn't call Cage's 4'33" music, but it is most certainly art. If you want virtuosity, check out Martha Argerich playing Rachmaninoff's third.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 7:05 PM on January 6, 2007


Just wanted to say, as a lapsed pianist, this post is awesome and every once in a while I still have delusions of being able to play like this again.

Anyway, here's Gilels playing Prokofiev's Sonata #3.
posted by casarkos at 7:24 PM on January 6, 2007


When it comes to music I am largely ignorant and I'll freely admit it, I've said it before and I'll say it again: everyone is vastly ignorant on most topics. With the exceptions of Country and Rap I like almost all music and that's pretty much what I know about music. I'd like to know more, but I have only limited time for study and I'm more interested in computers, Japanese history, and politics, than I am in the theory of music. I'm sure its a worthwhile field, its just not my field.

My first encounter with 4:33 was when it was "performed" at a small concert I attended. I had never heard of the piece until then and I found it highly annoying.

My second encounter was when the heirs of Cage *successfully* sued Mike Batt for his jokingly putting a few moments of silence into one of his albums and giving co-writer credit to Cage. That kind of cemented my low opinion.

Before typing this reply I've spent a few minutes reading esseys on 4:33 and I remain unconvinced that its anything but an advanced case of the Emperor's New Clothes syndrome.

One of the essayists (Peter Gutmann) wrote: "Couldn't a 3-year old have written this piece? Perhaps. But did he? Did you?" I answer, no, I didn't write that. But so what? Just because something is new and unique doesn't mean its good, or that its art. I could drop a bowling ball from a height of exactly 4.33 meters into a 55 gallon drum filled with a mixture of one inch ball bearings and orange flavored jello, and the same question "did you do that?" could be asked of people who dismiss it as not being art.

He also wrote "Often the concept turns out to be far more interesting than its execution - once you acknowledge the basic scheme you really don't want to have to sit through it. 4'33" is one of the very few pieces that has the opposite appeal. Its idea sounds simplistic and even stupid, but performances are fascinating, since they involve each listener so fully and intimately. And it's over before you can get bored or uncomfortable." I disagree. The concept strikes me as being mildly interesting at best, and the execution was incredibly boring and uncomfortable.

ob wrote: "Why not? Why is the word write in inverted commas? Why is the word piece in inverted commas? I think it's because you've decided right from the get-go that conceptual art is bullshit. That's your decision to make but you have to understand that this is not based on your experience or relationship with the piece of art itself, but based on your preconceived notions of what art is."

Actually, until I just now googled it, I had not heard of conceptual art, did not know what it was so its kind of hard for me to have decided that it was bullshit until this moment. From what little I've read so far, I can't say I'm impressed with the idea of conceptual art. There's a great method of expressing concepts: language. What little I've been able to read since I first saw the term in your post tells me that the physical artifact that is involved in conceptual art is often disregarded by the artist and that the concept is only really explored in, surprise, language.

As for your last sentence, you are utterly and absolutely correct. I have the preconceived notion that music involves an arrangement of sound.

Perhaps, instead of telling me what a cretin I am because I fail to grasp the genius of 4:33, you could offer a few links to something that might educate me? Because I'm looking at this and saying "new clothes hell, the Emperor is naked".

If you wish to tell me that to music experts 4:33 is amazing, I'll take your word for it. I saw a really nifty bit of code yesterday and I'm quite certain that to non-programmers it'd be boring as hell. If 4:33 falls into that category, why inflict it on non-experts and why sneer at us for failing to get it?
posted by sotonohito at 8:09 PM on January 6, 2007


for fuck's sake. 4.33 was composed in 1953 and you're getting pissed off about it now?

Metafilter does not do music discussion very well.
posted by dydecker at 8:19 PM on January 6, 2007


If you want to make a painting that's just a giant square painted black with no other discernible features, go ahead. And if you call it art, I swear I will try with all the intellect I have, pithy as it may be, to see the beauty and the genius in it.

But when I'm done with that, you better be able to draw me a fucking sweet ass dragon with flames and spikes and shit.
posted by Darth Fedor at 8:20 PM on January 6, 2007 [1 favorite]


Yeah, because the familiar andf cliched is so much more comforting, innit?

I'll go to bed.
posted by dydecker at 8:22 PM on January 6, 2007


dydecker I'm a historian, the battle of 2nd Sekigahara took place in 1600 and I'm all excited about it today, heck 1953 is nothing.

Besides, people are still, ahem, "performing" it and writing about how great it is. Seems like cause for an argument^H^H^H^H^H^H^H^H^Hdebate to me.
posted by sotonohito at 8:32 PM on January 6, 2007


Atonality and abstraction and conceptual "radicalism" have become the familiar and cliched of the self-identified avant-garde. As are pitched battles ("Philistine!""Dupe!") of the sort that have broken out here.

As for 4'33", whether it is "music" or "art" or even "good" hardly matters. Call it a piece or a gesture or whatever, it is at least interesting. At some point in the future it won't be interesting anymore, probably when it gets treated as a museum piece alongside others and you're not allowed to dislike it.

I suspect that Bach, Beethoven, Debussy, etc. will prove to have more to say over a longer time, although nothing is eternal. I suspect their staying power has something to do with hard-to-defend notions of some music having soul or touching the ineffable. Lots of avant-gardish "pieces" don't even try but instead settle for adopting a stance or pleading a case, which is realistic but a bit depressing.

Myself, I like the mystery in sequences of notes not only producing feelings but the (illusion?) of contacting something profound and lasting. It's a magical effect. The greatest composers have always, in some way, played with the tension between music-as-music and the magic it produces. I think that play is there somewhere in 4'33", which is why I like it.

But I would hate being told I wasn't allowed to hate it. And I'm not down with throwing insults at people because they do.
posted by argybarg at 8:46 PM on January 6, 2007 [1 favorite]


Well, frankly I'm not that impressed with a lot of conceptual art, but I think that things should be assessed on their own terms. Well, let me qualify that: I think that one should attempt to do so. Instead of saying, "this isn't art" we should look at why we think that this does or doesn't work. Just because a work is conceptual and uses silence doesn't, in my opinion mean that it isn't art. Take the example of Beethoven's 9th Symphony: It's pretty hard to imagine that someone would claim that it isn't art. It is, but that doesn't mean for a second that one has to like it. Indeed one may hate it, but I think it's better to take the piece of music on its own terms and say why one dislikes it. Does one feel that there's something unsatisfying about the ending. Is it overbearing and pompous? Musically, is the vocal writing rather un-idiomatic? Of course Beethoven 9 is one of the cornerstones classical music and it's an wonderful piece of music, but it's fine by me to dislike it. I don't care either way. It's just the discussion of a work should go further than the usual: I could do this, or this isn't art arguments.

Of course you're free to say what you want about 4:33 but philosophically I think that it is interesting. It raises many questions (some of which I wrote about above) and by virtue of those points alone it is worthy of consideration. If after consideration you think it's a bunch of crap then that's fine.

I really don't want to come across as an elitist and a snob here, it's just that I feel that music gets a rough ride when it gets discussed. That's a symptom of music's almost universal popularity (which makes me happy to be a musician), but many people seem to be ready to dismiss music (especially contemporary music) offhand when they would be less likely to do so when discussing literature or film or visual art for example.
posted by ob at 8:55 PM on January 6, 2007


But I would hate being told I wasn't allowed to hate it. And I'm not down with throwing insults at people because they do.

I just like to make clear that that wasn't my intention. I would never say that someone isn't allowed to hate any piece of music. I also hope that I didn't insult anyone here, that also was not my intention. OK, maybe I was insulting sotonohito's 5:55, but I don't think that he's going to write it anyway...
posted by ob at 9:02 PM on January 6, 2007


I just wanna say that I find it delightful that a post about piano virtuosity has mutated into a heated debate concerning conceptual art. GO METAFILTER!
posted by flapjax at midnite at 9:05 PM on January 6, 2007


ob I will concede that I tend to fall into "I could do this, therefore it isn't art" thinking. My own definition of art involves skill, so when I see something involving no skill at all I'm hard pressed to call it art. With regards to the visual arts, I don't like most abstrat painting, not only do I find it unappealing but (from my POV) there isn't any skill involved in producing it either. My wife loves abstracts and thus disagrees rather sharply.

I think the skill issue comes in because even if you don't like something, if it was skillfully made you can at least say "well, he's good at it, I just don't like it". While with something that takes no skill to produce those who don't like it just wonder what the point is.

As for 4:33, having seen many glowing reviews by music types, I suspect that there is something there, but I'll be buggered if I can see it. Which brings me back to my comparison with programming. I wouldn't try to show you a particularly elegant implementation of a linked list, because I know it takes lots of training before its anything but boring gibberish to a non-programmer so therefore it'd annoy you. If 4:33 takes lots of musical training before it can be appreciated, why annoy non-pros by playing it at events intended for the general public?
posted by sotonohito at 9:24 PM on January 6, 2007


4'33" doesn't take a lot of musical training, but it does take a lot of musical thinking. I know non-musicians who enjoy it because of the way it makes them *think* about music, in the moment of the performance and in general.

And there's a whole lot of abstract art that does take "skill" to produce, if you're defining skill as "technical proficiency." Could you paint some of Picasso's more abstract pieces? doubtful.

There's also the fact that the thinking behind the piece, whether it takes technical/mechanical proficiency to perform/produce or not, does require "skill" or "originality" or whatever, which the "Average Joe" could not do, regardless of whether or not you possess enough control over your fingers to touch a piano key in a certain way or move a paint brush in a certain way.
posted by papakwanz at 9:44 PM on January 6, 2007


er... the "skill" I referred to in the 3rd paragraph was meant to imply skillful thinking... creativity, originality, etc. etc., not physical, technical abilities in craft.
posted by papakwanz at 9:47 PM on January 6, 2007


sotonohito: I have to say that for the most part I really do agree with you. As a composer that composers that I admire most are those that are really skillful especially when they make it seem effortless.

I'm not sure if 4:33 takes lots of musical training to appreciate. I can certainly see why you don't like it, and frankly it isn't Cage's best piece and it's used as a stick with which to beat Cage by people who don't realize (or who don't wish to acknowledge) that he produced some other excellent music. In the long term, I hope that it's the Sonatas and Interludes or the Constructions by Cage that survive rather than 4:33.

As for why it's programmed I suspect that many times it's played because of the notoriety that surrounds the piece, which is a shame as I say as there are other pieces by Cage that could easily be programmed but I really can't answer your question.

It seems like you've had a bad experience with 4:33. When it's all said and done, it's just one piece in a huge array of contemporary classical music some of which I'm sure you will find interesting to listen to, and that won't get to you in the way that 4:33 obviously did.
posted by ob at 10:02 PM on January 6, 2007


papakwanz Sorry, it should have said "and some of it doesn't involve any skill to produce either" when refering to abstracts. There's no doubt in my mind that a Picasso cubist piece took a great deal of skill to produce, I just don't like 'em. I meant to say "some" I just had a brain fart and left that bit out.

As for skillfull thinking, sure I'll acknowledge it. I just don't see much of it in 4:33. As I said earlier, there seem to be a lot of music pros who think 4:33 is worthwhile, I'm not an expert so I'll rely on their expert opinion. But as a non-expert my reaction is "wow, a whole four minutes and thirty three seconds of no music, how amazing and original". I'm sure that if I posted code for a really great implementation of the quicksort algorithm your reaction would be about the same "wow, lots of jumbled symbols and oddly spelled words, how impressive". I don't subject people to stuff that takes years of training to appreciate because it bores and annoys them, so why don't musicians reciprocate?

I've got no objection at all to the idea of "musician's music", that is, music so whatever that only pros can get it. I do object to being labeled as a creten because I don't have the expertise to get it.
posted by sotonohito at 10:02 PM on January 6, 2007


I appreciate several virtuosic passages in the last few goldberg variations (ie 26-28ish), although I wouldn't classify them as the most virtuosic of all time by any means. Here's glenn playing them in 1981 with amazing phrasing and depth. One of my favorite musical performances of all times.
posted by ryanfou at 10:21 PM on January 6, 2007


ob That'll teach me not to hit preview again just before I post, didn't see yours until after I hit the post.

I wouldn't say I had a bad experience with it, I was bored and mildly annoyed. That's hardly worth writing home about. My big reaction was to the "well if you don't get it you're just a loser" attitude I saw in some people's replies. I may have been imagining that attitude, I'm vocal and I have often gotten into good art / bad art arguments so I may be overly sensitive to being accused of cretenism. [1]

Art is weird. On one level it is appreciated universally. I don't think there's anyone one the planet who doesn't like at least some art, and on that level its all a matter of taste. On another level it is a field which requires expertise to appreciate. I can also understand the experts objecting to reverse snobbery from non-experts and it is entirely possible I had some of that in my earlier postings. If so I appologize.

Then there's what I consider to be an unacknowledged charlitan factor in the art world. Since art has a universal component, and no one wants to be accused of having bad taste, I think that its very easy for emperor's new clothes type con men to extract a large amount of money from gullible people. Since I'm not an expert if I see something that a) doesn't look like good art to me, b) costs a lot, and c) doesn't seem to require skill, I tend to assume its a con. I'm especially annoyed by this because I've never seen an art expert complaining about it or issuing warnings etc, so either I'm totally full of it and no one is scamming anyone, or no one in the art community wants to discuss the problem. 4:33 matched all three of those categories. Obviously I'm wrong, as evidenced by the articles by pros extolling the virtues of 4:33.

Naturally, this also affects many fields which require expertise. Back when I was fixing computers for a living I was constantly amazed at how many of my customers had been scammed by an incompetent who didn't know what he was doing but was able to pass himself off as an expert becuase he knew some buzzwords. Typically these people charged hefty fees in exchange for making the problem worse.

I'm possibly also being unfair regarding the performances of 4:33 for a non-expert audience. THe one time I saw it performed the majority of the audience seemed to appreciate it (though that could be fake due to a desire not to seem uncultured).

[1] Do you suppose people from Crete are annoyed by the use of the word "creten" or do they think its funny?
posted by sotonohito at 10:22 PM on January 6, 2007


I think you're right that there is quite a lot of 'emperor's new clothes' in the art world. I don't agree with 4:33 being in that category, but I can see why you think it is. Frankly I think that contemporary classical music is the least guilty of this phenomenon. Maybe that's because the conceptual thing only lasted a short period of time, and now all us composers are writing notes again (or sounds, but generally craft is highly prized in the field) and 4:33 and pieces like it and the Fluxus movement are products of an earlier generation. Well, that's the way that I see it -I'm sure others may disagree.

As for your disparaging remarks about people from Crete, that's on your conscience sir! Right I'd better go -time for some more wine...
posted by ob at 10:39 PM on January 6, 2007


I think you're right that there is quite a lot of 'emperor's new clothes' in the art world. And by that I mean as regards conceptual art...
posted by ob at 10:40 PM on January 6, 2007


argybarg, What a brilliant, exciting and educational post! The thread is packed full of gems, a feast of music. What a great use of YouTube.

The young girl who played the Campanella so breathtakingly in the first video is named Aya Nagatomi. She's a 20 year old student at the Liszt Academy. This is her blog. Here she is playing Chopin Etude op.10-12.

I know nothing about classical music, except having read a few biographies of the renowned composers as a kid. The most sublime piano pieces I've heard seem to require the most skill in playing the silences between the notes, like Michelangeli playing Debussy's La Fille aux cheveux de lin (The Girl With the Flaxen Hair) from his Preludes Book 1. And this, Debussy's Reflections in Water, shimmering. ahhh Debussy!

Looking forward to exploring all the links mentioned.
posted by nickyskye at 10:55 PM on January 6, 2007


sotonohito: My big reaction was to the "well if you don't get it you're just a loser" attitude I saw in some people's replies.

If my comments conveyed that, I apologize--I was being critical because, as you said "I can also understand the experts objecting to reverse snobbery from non-experts," and this particular Cage piece is one that people looove to bash on, with little understanding of what it is or what it really is about.

Art is weird. On one level it is appreciated universally. I don't think there's anyone one the planet who doesn't like at least some art, and on that level its all a matter of taste. On another level it is a field which requires expertise to appreciate.

This is why it's so frustrating trying to have real conversations about music with non-musicians--since most everyone loves some kind of music, and they all have opinions about it, many people (in my experience) think that their opinions are equally valid--when, in fact, most people's opinions about music come from their personal taste rather than an understanding and exploration of the art form itself. My intention was not to make you feel like an uncultured cretin, but rather to challenge you to understand the work before you dismiss it. You are absolutely "allowed" to hate it--as I said before (and say to my students--young and old--constantly), just don't confuse your opinion of a work with its substance, or lack thereof. There are more objective ways to evaluate music, other than if one likes it, or how it makes you feel. So, hate away on 4'33" if you wish, but please, do try to understand why so many experts in the field esteem the piece.

From my point of view, the reason 4'33" is important to understand and to respect has much less to do with the work itself, and much moreso with two things: the context in which it was composed, and the effects it had on the artistic world into which it was introduced. Briefly (FWIW, and waaaaay off topic), Cage wrote that piece in an artistic climate that fetishized the object of music itself, and was entrenched in pernicious dogma. Composers by and large (if they wanted to have a career) had to write serialized music of certain types, and large swaths of means of musical expression--like tonality--were off limits in the eyes of this dogma.

Cage was like a nuclear bomb dropped into the middle of all that, and 4'33" perfectly epitomizes why and how--he was challenging the very concept of what a work of music is, and what it means to perform and receive a work of music. While the work itself may or may not be a worthwhile experience for you, one cannot deny that several important American composers had a profound experience hearing that particular piece--John Adams cited his hearing a performance of 4'33" specifically as the experience that "liberated [him] as a composer", and taught him that he really could write whatever he wanted to (sorry no citation, I heard him say this in person). I'm of the opinion that, without the liberating influence of John Cage and pieces of his like 4'33", American classical music would not be nearly as amazingly interesting as it has been for the past 40 years or so. He was a tremendously liberating influence.

Even if 4'33" is way easier to play than all of the other pieces in discussion here.
posted by LooseFilter at 11:14 PM on January 6, 2007 [1 favorite]


* The link to Michelangeli playing Debussy's Girl With the Flaxen Hair.
posted by nickyskye at 11:14 PM on January 6, 2007


Okay, I switch sides. Gut reaction is much more compelling and valid reaction than the half-mulched academic calls to authority and brouhaha about influence. I mean could LooseFilter get any more condescending? "There are more objective ways to evaluate music, other than if one likes it, or how it makes you feel." "Most everyone loves some kind of music, and they all have opinions about it, many people (in my experience) think that their opinions are equally valid." You don't need to know how to cook to know whether something tastes good, sir.
posted by dydecker at 11:54 PM on January 6, 2007


seriously, the front page of Metafilter is filling up with guitarists and pianists widdling and plonking at 100 miles an hour and it does absolutely nothing for me. Nada. If appreciating this stuff means you have to understand the theory and expertise behind what they were doing it, I don't care to know. Music is not athletics.
posted by dydecker at 12:00 AM on January 7, 2007 [1 favorite]


You don't need to know how to cook to know whether something tastes good, sir.

Absolutely not--not to know if it tastes good to you; to know whether or not it's a skillfully conceived and executed dish? I wouldn't know how to do that, as I have little knowledge of the culinary arts, even though I love to eat.

My intention is not to be condescending at all, but I stand by my statement about opinions: an expert in any field has a better claim to informed judgment in his or her field than someone who doesn't. I know what food tastes good to me, but it took me a while to appreciate a complex taste like wine. When I first had it, it tasted acidic and gross, but now I love the stuff. It's not that I "acquired" a taste by drinking a lot of it, it's that I learned how to sort out and understand a complex sensory experience.

Much 20th century classical music is confusing and confounding to listeners, and they thus have an unpleasant experience with it. Sometimes, that leads to snide dismissals of what are, actually, tremendous works of art. (This book is full of delightful examples of people hurling vitriol at music they clearly did not understand.) Casual dismissal of substantial works of art makes it very hard to find an audience for such work, and that makes it even harder to continue producing it.

I never took issue with sotonohito's dislike of Cage's piece--I took issue with his clear misunderstanding of what that piece is, and where it came from.
posted by LooseFilter at 12:19 AM on January 7, 2007


as a non-expert my reaction is "wow, a whole four minutes and thirty three seconds of no music, how amazing and original". I'm sure that if I posted code for a really great implementation of the quicksort algorithm your reaction would be about the same "wow, lots of jumbled symbols and oddly spelled words, how impressive".

It's more like "wow, a whole four minutes and thirty three seconds where no one is consciously performing any sort of scored piece that would traditionally be called music, yet somehow there is music." A more appropriate analogy would be if you ran a program that actually had no code in it yet somehow my computer did my taxes, or whatever.

dydecker: seriously, the front page of Metafilter is filling up with guitarists and pianists widdling and plonking at 100 miles an hour and it does absolutely nothing for me.

Aww, are those three posts ruining your Metafilter experience? How sad for you. Maybe you should, oh, I don't know, not look at them. There are other posts, ya know.


Anyway, I'll say that despite my defenses of it, 4'33" is not a piece of music that I particularly enjoy. I feel like I understand the concept behind it fairly well and it doesn't add anything to my appreciation of music (then again, I've never actually heard the piece performed live, so maybe that would change things for me). I much prefer Cage's prepared piano and toy piano work, which I think is better because it possesses both the conceptual, academic angle and the aesthetic, gut reaction, emotional side.
posted by papakwanz at 12:56 AM on January 7, 2007 [1 favorite]


You don't need to know how to cook to know whether something tastes good, sir.

You probably would need to know how to cook in order to prevent getting salmonella or eating something poisonous.
posted by papakwanz at 12:57 AM on January 7, 2007


I find watching these virtuosos on youtube kind of a mixed bag. On the one hand there are some real gems, on the other hand it is extremely frustrating when the audio is not in sync because somebody didn't know what they were doing when they converted the clip, or when the sound is clipped and the video quality is third generation VHS.

But despite that, my favorite piano clip on youtube is Claudio Arrau playing the last part of the third movement of Beethoven's Appassionata sonata in 1965. There is a much higher quality clip here of him playing it later in life, but I think I read that he mellowed out greatly after his mother died and stopped playing with the speed and fury he previously had. So even with the crappier audio and video quality, I find the first clip more compelling. I am not actually a huge Arrau fan and I don't think the Appassionata is remotely close to the hardest piano piece in the world, but I do find it more emotionally compelling than most Liszt pieces which seem to be more towards the chromatic wanking end of the scale.
posted by Rhomboid at 2:14 AM on January 7, 2007 [1 favorite]


It's more like "wow, a whole four minutes and thirty three seconds where no one is consciously performing any sort of scored piece that would traditionally be called music, yet somehow there is music."

I don't think I've seen a more succinct description of what the piece is about. Well done.

(then again, I've never actually heard the piece performed live, so maybe that would change things for me)


Well, yeah, considering the whole (musical rather than conceptual) point is about the unique, unrepeatable sonic environment that exists during a particular performance, I think it might.

sotonohito: Dammit, I was all prepared to stomp you with my conceptual boots when you got all reasonable and everything. Now all I can do is offer to buy you a beer.
posted by languagehat at 6:25 AM on January 7, 2007 [1 favorite]


Nicely said LooseFilter. What a stimulating discussion in this thread. So much to learn!

I do admire Cage as an innovative conceptual artist.
posted by nickyskye at 6:41 AM on January 7, 2007


Sound design and composition class, 1999:

PROFESSOR: [plays short, non-narrative video documentary about John Cage]

PROFESSOR: So, what do you think?

STUDENT 1: Um. Uh.

STUDENT 2: Weird.

STUDENT 3: ...

STUDENT 4: That guy was seriously retarded. WTF.

PROFESSOR: John Cage was a dear friend of mine, and a genius.

STUDENTS 1-3, 5-14: ...

STUDENT 4: ah shit

posted by cortex at 7:23 AM on January 7, 2007


Casual dismissal of substantial works of art makes it very hard to find an audience for such work, and that makes it even harder to continue producing it.

Er, the problem here is with the music itself, not the audience. If you cannot appreciate a piece of music just by simply listening to it, if you need to know the historio-cultural-musicological background for it to make any sense at all, then it is not art which is made for a wide audience, it is art made for historians/academics/musicologists. But don't blame the wide audience for the misunderstanding, blame the fact that the concepts behind the piece don't carry their meaning outside of the context it meant for. The problem as I see with the Cage piece is that it became famous outside of its context - thus everyone and his dog has an (uninformed) opinion of it.
posted by dydecker at 8:34 AM on January 7, 2007


everyone and his dog has an (uninformed) opinion of it.

Actually, my dog doesn't care one way or the other about it, but he has expressed enormous distaste for most of Phillip Glass' music, which I think speaks well of his critical faculties.
posted by flapjax at midnite at 8:48 AM on January 7, 2007


if you need to know the historio-cultural-musicological background for it to make any sense at all

Well, I don't expect my three-year-old son to make much of Beethoven's Hammerklavier sonata. I doubt the 4th-graders I teach would do much beside pass out with boredom either. I remember listening to it as a much younger man and having my mind drift as well; I really didn't get anything out of it. Now I listen to it and there's a whole landscape -- magnificent stuff.

So what happened? Did I just learn to fool myself? No -- there really is something there in the music, I just wasn't ready to hear it. I heard a few expositions about what's happening in the music, read a few accounts here and there, and some critical mass of help allowed me to understand what was happening. Once it did, I had access to the whole piece, which gave me access to its smallest parts.

I don't think the above means that Beethoven's art is for historians/academics/musicologists. It's for anyone willing to spend a while focusing in a certain way to hear something demanding of the listener, but intensely rewarding at the same time.
posted by argybarg at 8:51 AM on January 7, 2007 [1 favorite]


Yes, that's true argybarg, but the same process happens for every variety of music not just classical. If you're into rap, you're finely tuned into the gradations between the records, you know who is innovating, you know who is copying what's come before. You know the social context and the stories behind it. Same goes for techno or free jazz: the more you listen, the more interesting it gets - you tune into the language of it, the subtle shifts. I think pleasure from music comes from hearing new things, but not hearing completely new things - and that's why when we listen to a form of music we've never heard before we don't get it at all. It's the same for food - i read somewhere that people can learn to like any food as long as they eat it twelve times, that after you've eaten a durian 12 times, you'd not only know a good one from a bad one, you'd be guaranteed to like it. I think there is truth in this.

Beethoven might not be for an in crowd, but most conceptual music is, and I think that is due to the nature of music itself. Music lends itself to carrying pure emotional content very easily but ideas not well as all. First time I heard Gorecki's Symphony 3 I thought it was so lovely and beautiful - six months later I read the liner notes and found out it was about gassing the Jews. Um, totally missed that. But my point is that it doesn't matter. I still got a lot out of it.

If modernist music is less popular that it feels it ought to be, it's not because the audience is stupid, it's because the modernists have misunderstood what musical notes can convey and cannot convey.
posted by dydecker at 9:10 AM on January 7, 2007 [1 favorite]


It's for anyone willing to spend a while focusing in a certain way to hear something demanding of the listener, but intensely rewarding at the same time.

Well said, argybarg.

but the same process happens for every variety of music not just classical.

Absolutely--the problem with classical music is that, because of a couple of generations of very challenging music (say, 1911-1960), it's very difficult to get audiences to just listen--to anything written after the 19th century, really.

Most classical music written since the 60s is extraordinarily listenable, but the whole art form has been tarred and feathered by one arc in musical thinking, that essentially ended over 40 years ago. Try some music by Adams, Reich, Corigliano, Rouse, Golijov, Turnage, I promise you won't say it's music for elites. But because of musical prejudices from people who don't know of the music they dismiss a priori, it's difficult to get this music to people's ears in the first place.

Also, I think if you heard a performance of 4'33", you'd see that you don't need to know a lot about it to have an interesting experience with it. Whether or not you'd like it I don't know, but I'm sure it would be an interesting experience for you.
posted by LooseFilter at 10:17 AM on January 7, 2007


Yes, I absolutely agree with argybarg and LooseFilter here. Contemporary music now is so very, radically different to the avant-garde that produced works such as 4:33, but the problem is that pieces such as 4:33 are so infamous (and therefore misrepresented) that many people think that if they went to a concert of new contemporary music they'd be faced with people smashing up pianos or some such thing. This is just not true. I don't want to seem like an apologist here, and I firmly believe that music should stand on its own, but there's a huge amount of new music that's been written in the past forty years that's hugely engaging.

I like LooseFilter's list there's some great stuff to check out there. I'd add Andriessen onto that list. He's a really important figure who stepped out of the avant-garde to forge his own way forward, but (full disclosure) I may be biased as he was my teacher.
posted by ob at 10:46 AM on January 7, 2007


(ob: I love Andriessen's music! When did you study with him?)
posted by LooseFilter at 10:58 AM on January 7, 2007


LooseFilter: I studied with him between 2000 and 2002. He's a great teacher and a very generous person, so it was a pleasure to study with him. Well there are lots to say about Andriessen. Feel free to email me if you want to talk about his music or indeed any new music, I'd love to know more about what you're into etc.
posted by ob at 11:44 AM on January 7, 2007


John Cage's 4'33" on Google video.
posted by nickyskye at 12:58 PM on January 7, 2007


nickyskye: Thanks very much for that! It's amazing how the piece sucks you in (assuming, that is, you start off with goodwill and some basic comprehension of what it's about, rather than reflex "WTF pretentious crap"); I found myself acutely aware of the faint roar of the steam radiators, the hum of the computer, the sounds of my wife preparing dinner downstairs. "Everything around us is music" is what Cage is trying to say, and I guess you either go along or you don't.

Another thing that struck me is that if you've actually experienced it, you're not about to forget that the piece is in three movements, whereas if you just know about it it would be hard to remember that.
posted by languagehat at 2:06 PM on January 7, 2007


Pleased you liked it languagehat. I agree with you and love 4'33". Found it life changing when I heard it, about it and about John Cage as a teen, way back in the early '70's. The Wikipedia article about the piece is nicely illuminating.

About 4'33", Cage wrote in "A Composer's Confessions" (1948) that he had the desire to "compose a piece of uninterrupted silence and sell it to the Muzak Co. It will be 4 [and a half] minutes long — these being the standard lengths of 'canned' music, and its title will be 'Silent Prayer'. It will open with a single idea which I will attempt to make as seductive as the color and shape or fragrance of a flower. The ending will approach imperceptibly."

ah. :)
posted by nickyskye at 2:43 PM on January 7, 2007


BTW, once in the Seventies in a small college where I organized an avant-garde/electronic music performance, I asked our visiting electronic/avant garde musician (a still active composer, Rocco Di Pietro) to play 4' 33", and he politely declined, on the basis of the environment in which it would be played. The concert was in a small hall, and the performance, for Rocco, at least, required the environment of a formal concert hall setting. It was, to borrow a phrase from the visual art world, a site-specific piece. And, as many of you have pointed out, a time-specific piece. I don't imagine it's played much anymore. The points have been made.
posted by kozad at 3:29 PM on January 7, 2007


On Tokyo time, sorry not to have replied in a more timely fashion.

languagehatAs for a layman enjoying 4:33, I think it depends on the layman. Disagree if you want, tell me that I don't understand music if you want, but as a non-professional I just don't see any music there. Sorry languagehat, but random environmental sounds just don't qualify as music in my mind. Having read all the people here talking about how 4:33 is great, having read the articles online from various pros about its genius, I followed the link to the video with goodwill and simply was not sucked in. Sorry, but I found it as boring and unimpressive as my first experience with it. Knowing, now, that it is not merely an advanced case of the emperor's new clothes syndrome I was not annoyed as I was during my first encounter, but I still don't see any music there.

Perhaps to someone who makes an effort to fill all their time with sound there's something impressive to be found there, maybe to an iPod addict who hasn't actually had silence (other than for sleeping) for years it'd be a mind blowing eye opener. Similarly, I can see how to a musician who (even before iPods) was constantly thinking of music being put into a situation where they had no choice but to hear environmental noise would be a mind blowing eye opener. Me? I'm not an iPod person, I like music but I don't fill my life with it, so I hear the sounds we call "silence" all the time.

Which brings us back to the layman vs. professional point. I don't consider 4:33 music, its just that simple. If you, as an expert, tell me that my definition of music is too limited I'll take your word that it is, but without your interest and training my acceptance that for an expert there's more to music than what my definition includes doesn't give me any enjoyment of 4:33.

papakwanz wrote "wow, a whole four minutes and thirty three seconds where no one is consciously performing any sort of scored piece that would traditionally be called music, yet somehow there is music."

If you're a professional musician I suppose that's a possible reaction. As I mentioned earlier, as a layman I find it incorrect. There is no music there that I, as a layman, can see.

Let me toss in an example:

function quicksort(q)
var list less, pivotList, greater
if length(q) ≤ 1
return q
select a pivot value pivot from q
for each x in q except the pivot element
if x < pivot then add x to less if x ≥ pivot then add x to greater add pivot to pivotlist return concatenate(quicksort(less), pivotlist, quicksort(greater)) />


That's a pseudocode representation of a recursive implementation of the quicksort algorithm. I took it from the entry for quicksort on the Wikipedia. There is elegance in that, mind blowing beauty even. Tell me though, if you aren't a programmer, do you see any elegance or beauty there?

The answer can only be "of course not, its just garbage". Perhaps you musicians see music in 4:33, I won't dispute it. But please take my word for it that I don't, I'm simply not educated enough in music to see it as music. Unlike maturing and being able to appreciate music you couldn't as a 6 year old, 4:33 is not something that I think anyone would really get or appreciate without training.

papakwanz, the *only* thing that I can either see or appreciate as music is what you labeled a "scored piece that would traditionally be called music". If you wish to tell me that for professional musicians things beyond that count as music and are enjoyable I'll take your word for it, just as I'll ask you to take my word for it that there is beauty in the quicksort. But don't make the mistake of thinking that just becuase you, as an professional, can easily see the music in 4:33 that non-professionals *should* be able to see that music. The layman can never be expected to see things the same way a professional does, and making that expectation simply gives annoys the layman and causes him to view the professional as a snob.

The problem is that no one except programmers ever discusses programming, but everyone discusses music. I can see how it would be very easy for a music expert to get annoyed or frusturated with laymen for not getting what are, to the professional, obvious things. Worse, since the professional sees and appreciates music that the layman not only does not appreciate but is incapiable of even accepting as music I can see how it'd be very easy for the professional to think "damn reverse snob jackass".

I think that the vast majority of non-professionals would agree with me that a scored piece that would traditionally be called music is the the only definition of music that we are able to grasp. If you tell me that my definition is far too limited, I'll believe you, but don't expect me to appreciate, or even see, music that I'm not trained to see. Play it for other professionals and enjoy it among yourselves, leave me the simple stuff that laymen can grasp, we'll both be happy that way.

I think Shakespere is a less extreme example. Other than actors and English majors, the average modern English speaker is unlikely to even comprehend the dialog in Shakespere (when spoken at a normal pace, if he has a script he can likely puzzle out at least the basic meaning). Expecting him to see the humor, or even that a particular line is humorous, is simply foolish.

A non-Shakesperian can learn to appreciate Shakespere, but this does not mean that we should expect the layman to get Shakespere. Us pro-Shakespere types put on the plays for the enjoyment of others who have taken the time and energy to learn to appreciate Shakespere. Springing Shakespere on an unsuspecting audience of layman would bore and annoy them. This is not the fault of the layman. There's so much in the world that requires time and energy to understand and appreciate that most people can only learn how to appreciate a small fraction of the enjoyable things.

Coffee is another example. I don't drink the stuff, everyone else in my family does. I have been told that there's a delicious, subtle, amazing flavor in Jamaca Blue Mountain coffee. If someone were to offer me a cupfull I wouldn't be able to tast the great flavor, because I haven't learned to drink coffee and appreciate it. I like the way coffee smells, but when I taste it all that happens is I get an overload of bitter flavor. I could take the time to learn to enjoy the coffee, and then I'm sure that I'd be able to taste the wonders of Jamaca Blue Mountain, but until I take the time that flavor is simply invisible to me. I can't see it, and similarly I can't see the music in 4:33.
posted by sotonohito at 5:31 PM on January 7, 2007 [2 favorites]


Symphonic Variations by Kaikhosru Shapurji Sorabji is considered by many to be the most difficult piece of music ever written for the piano. It is 484 pages of manuscript and takes about 8 hours to play.
posted by chance at 6:56 PM on January 7, 2007


sotonohito, lots of valid perspective in what you wrote above--my only reaction is that, if one doesn't wish to understand and enjoy the complexities of music, code, coffee, or whatever, then one should refrain from disparaging them, as well. I do get frustrated when people criticize that which they don't understand.

FWIW, the working definition of music I like best these days comes from the composer Martin Mailman: "Music is sound and silence, in time, with intent."
posted by LooseFilter at 9:30 PM on January 7, 2007 [3 favorites]


I both love and loathe that this thread has split into a 'what is art?' debate... but I suppose that's always been the case with MeFi in general: 30 topical comments, then quickly veer off into something only semi-related to the topic.

As for virtuosity, I was never overwhelmed with the speed or technical prowess of any composer or performer, as those qualities seem too easy to manufacture these days [side note: the Nancarrow stuff is amazing!] rather that it can reach into me and cause a response that I had not -- consciously, at least -- expected. Debussy's work is most often what seems to resonate most deeply with me.

Difficulty on it's own though, that seems like a sort of empty measurement of greatness. Really great collection of videos here though, most impressed by the performance of the Ravel piece, especially after reading it's background.
posted by phylum sinter at 10:53 PM on January 7, 2007


Martin Mailman's "Music is sound and silence, in time, with intent." is wonderful.

Thank you for that LooseFilter and for your excellent comments in this thread. Are there any sites online for the ignorant, like myself, to learn about the histories or even the names of the renowned, difficult piano pieces?
posted by nickyskye at 9:11 AM on January 8, 2007


LooseFilter I can sympathize, and I'll admit that my first post in this thread wasn't nice.

I think that part of the problem is that with many things (Shakespere, coffee) its quite obvious that unless you have the training you won't appreciate it. People don't go to coffee shops unless they drink coffee. People don't go to productions of Shakespere unless they like Shakespere. Or if they do go they go knowing fully that they won't get it right away, but that there is something to get.

Programmers just plain don't talk about programming with non-programmers, or at least programmers with any sort of social skill don't.

Music and the other arts are in a weird place, everyone likes some music and art, its well known that taste varies widely from person to person, and it is impossible not to be exposed to music and art. I was initially exposed to 4:33 (and had never even heard of its existence before that time) at a small concert / gathering / thing done as an exhibition by our local opera group, a string quartet, and part of the symphony. With the exception of 4:33 the music was all quite conventional. There was no explanation for 4:33 in the program which lead me to believe I was looking at the emperor's new clothes syndrome.

Which is another part of the problem. Since there is such a thing as the emperor's new clothes syndrome then a person faced with something artistic that he neither comprehends, nor can even see as art, begins to wonder if he's being played for a fool.

The other thing is that until reading this thread I'd never actually considered that there might be music that actually requires training simply to recognize as music. I knew perfectly well that there was stuff going on in music that took training to understand, and possibly even to appreciate, but I had assumed that even the most untrained layman would at least be able to recognize any music as music. Even after all this discussion I can't see how 4:33 can be viewed as music, I accept that to sufficiently trained people it can be so viewed but I'm taking that purely on faith. If it weren't for the fact that so many musicians insist that it's music I'd assume it was just the emperor's new clothes.

I definately agree that its annoying when people spout off opinions on things they don't understand. OTOH, there are some opinions that laymen are prefectly justified in having. You don't have to be a programmer to say "I paid for this software and it does not perform as it was advertised to perform". This can be a legitimate complaint even though its expressed by someone with no understanding of programming, the box says "this program will do X" and the program doesn't do X.

Which doesn't excuse the vitriol I directed at 4:33 in my first post on this thread. But perhaps it does explain it.

I think it might be worthwhile for artists, musicians, and so forth to realize that some of what they do is simply incomprehensible to the layman, and indeed probably will not even be recognized as art by the layman, and perhaps offer an explanation before the incomprehensible piece is presented. I've seen books on computers, intended for the layman, which offer warnings before delving into technical details.
posted by sotonohito at 3:45 PM on January 8, 2007


This might be better suited to AskMe, but I thought I'd give you folks a shot first seeing as many of you seem to be in the field:

I was transfixed by the Perlemuter performance of Gaspard de la Nuit. I would dearly love to have it for mine very own on the DVD shelf, but cannot for the life of me figure out if it's even ever been issued on DVD. Does anyone know the specs of that performance?

I sent an email to the person who posted the videos to YouTube. TIA to anyone who comes through. Peace.
posted by carsonb at 4:47 PM on January 9, 2007


Metafilter isn't going to succeed in defining music. But music, listening to music, and playing music are three different things. As an untrained amature hack musician, I can tell you right now that given the proper space and a large audience, I could do a killer version of 4:33. But I sure can't duplicate what Perlemuter did with Ravel in the original poster's link.

4:33 can be important to a trained ear, because it teaches the listener to include and enjoy the physical acoustic space in their musical experience. Reverb isn't just a knob on a box, and damp isn't always a constant.

It can teach the composer that his work won't ever be played in a perfectly impartial environment, and that certain environments can deliver emotional payloads, which could affect the way the music is perceived.

And it can teach the casual listener that there's no need to fear dead air, that there's always something to listen to, and that there is no such thing as perfect quiet.

People tend to believe that to make good music, you need some training, practice... and usually one or more instruments. I kind of lean this way when it comes to things like 4:33. My first thought is always "Could I do that?" Then I measure the result against my own halfhearted approach to creating music, try to factor out my ego and hatred of showtunes, multiply by how fun it is, and usually arrive at a percentage result. Like "Yup, 67% music." 4:33 pisses me off because the program crashes with a divide by zero error.

I think Laurie Anderson said it best in Difficult Listening Hour:
Good evening. Welcome to Difficult Listening Hour. The spot on your dial for that relentless and impenetrable sound of Difficult Music. So sit bolt upright in that straight-backed chair, button that top button, and get set for some difficult music.
posted by Area Control at 4:36 PM on January 10, 2007


« Older A revised U.S. plant hardiness map...  |  We probably all remember potat... Newer »


This thread has been archived and is closed to new comments