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Why do people get Rothko but not Stockhausen?
April 30, 2009 9:01 AM   Subscribe

Music Journalist David Stubbs has a new book exploring why when the audience for modern art is huge, that for new music is tiny. The BBC, has an article about this with an interview with the author and some sound samples.
posted by ob (34 comments total) 13 users marked this as a favorite

 
People love new music, just not new classical music, is Rothko “classical” art?
posted by nfg at 9:08 AM on April 30, 2009


This is a mystery? Seems pretty obvious. It's like asking why attempts to substitute apples and carrots in vending machines never takes off. Because they aren't salty and sugary, which is what humans crave for historical (which is to say evolutionary) reasons. If you make junk food or music with the wrong ingredients it will be jarring and unpopular. There is no "modern art" sense, so it's about the new ideas, and novelty is also something humans like (assuming it doesn't clash with other senses).
posted by DU at 9:09 AM on April 30, 2009 [2 favorites]


Well, that's what happens when you throw centuries of harmonic, melodic, etc. development out the window. New music isn't music anymore; it's just another subsection of the amorphous, high-browed, and overly-cerebral entity known as "art".
posted by archagon at 9:12 AM on April 30, 2009


Why should we find modern music so difficult to appreciate - but not modern art?

A person can look at a "difficult" or "challenging" piece of art for like two to thirty seconds, and form some kind of rudimentary opinion about it, so it's easy to be generous with one's praise; one can spend as much or as little time as one feels like with the visual art. One can take a glance, and if one likes it, one can always go back for a longer look later. The control is in the hands of the audience.

But music makes an active demand on one's time. One can't determine how long one spends with it; music bullies the listener into engaging with it for as long as the piece lasts. Only a musician or music journalist, someone deeply in love with the medium, would be so dense as to ask why people seem to resent that.
posted by Greg Nog at 9:14 AM on April 30, 2009 [8 favorites]


You can pretend to like something that just sits there quietly on your wall a lot more easily than you can pretend to like something that gets in your face and shrieks at you, all atonal and shrill.
posted by kittens for breakfast at 9:15 AM on April 30, 2009 [6 favorites]


I don't entirely buy the premise of the article. People who don't go for the "overly cerebral" or don't have "modern art" sense (as others have put it) will respond positively to it in conjunction with other media. Many film scores are far more "modern" than stand-alone popular music, but people don't generally run screaming from theaters because of the music. Stockhausen may forever remain an acquired taste, but so does some slice of any music, visual, literary, etc. form.
posted by el_lupino at 9:18 AM on April 30, 2009 [2 favorites]


Oh, and I should add that a lot of new music is literally incomprehensible in the way it's intended to be heard. Did you know that one of the main "points" of serial music was supposed to be the entrance of each pitch?
posted by archagon at 9:19 AM on April 30, 2009


As bad as it is for music, it's even worse for poetry. It always astounds me that people can have so much curiosity about contemporary art and music, but think that Billy Collins is the be-all-and-end-all of poetry.
posted by roll truck roll at 9:22 AM on April 30, 2009


I was wondering why all these modern art museums were popping up all over the place and were jam-packed with visitors.

More seriously, though, if Murakami's cartoons = contemporary art, then The Flaming Lips = new music, and new music is much more popular.
posted by snofoam at 9:27 AM on April 30, 2009


the audience for modern art is huge

Really?

I mean, like britney-spears-sells-out-a-stadium-in-ten-minutes huge?
posted by DreamerFi at 9:29 AM on April 30, 2009


this just in:

art form dominated by cosseted academics with zero-interest in appealing to a mass audience lacks said mass audience.

chalk it all up to the failure of the counter-reformation though, without the original martin luther there would never have been jazz...
posted by geos at 9:30 AM on April 30, 2009


Also, does modern art include painters like Picasso and Kandinsky?
posted by archagon at 9:32 AM on April 30, 2009


Aside from my snarky non-answer (Because Speicus said he'd make me a mix of contemporary composition and hasn't, so that's why I don't listen to it), I have to say that there's a lot wrong with his premises.

First off, modern art is a (mostly) dead movement. It's weird to ask why stuff of one media from 50 years ago is known (I dispute "popular") and another media isn't as a proxy for contemporary work.

Second, the artifacts are different—art is very much concerned with artifacts; music not nearly as much. Aside from the folks buying the Merzcar, the mode of mass production is much more entrenched with music. I own Stockhausen and Varese and Xenakis albums, but I got 'em cheap or free. I saw a Xenakis album (vinyl) at a used store last week, and I would have paid the princely sum of $6 for it if it hadn't been all grimy and warped. If Hirst sells one work to one collector for $1 million, he's a millionaire. After record company cuts, etc., it's going to take (based on a 16¢ royalty) six and a quarter million copies of an album to earn that much.

And that's ignoring that most New Music isn't fixed like that as an artifact, which means that there's no moneyed collection.

Third, New Music has to compete against a lot of other avant music in a way that "modern art" doesn't. "Modern art" or "contemporary art" is a catch-all term. But folks who are interested in, let's call it "conceptual music" or "experimental music" have a lot more to choose from. There's noise, jazz, New Music, sound collage, electronic experimentalism, punk skronk, all sorts of stuff that, just from hanging out with people that compose, they're all into. Which dilutes the popular market, and when tossed into that New Music has an incredible burden culturally regarding the perception of elitism that works against it, again, because the performances aren't artifacts.

Which is further compounded by the dilemma regarding pricing of live events—I can go and see, say, a friend of mine's work performed at REDCAT for what, $30? Or I can get my fill of weirdo music for free at the Museum of Jurassic Technology by listening to their installed sound collage. I can respect that a lot of craft goes into composing music, but that doesn't mean I can afford it.
posted by klangklangston at 9:36 AM on April 30, 2009


I'm under the (perhaps mistaken) impression that new music is more accessible than ever. The rise of electronic and ambient music has attuned a lot of people to the likes of Steve Reich and Arvo Part. Artists like Brian Eno have done wonderful work bridging that cultural divide. If you like Massive attack and Aphex Twin, it's easy to slip into enjoying Reich, Satie or Philip Glass. This is all great music.

Stockhausen, though ... why does Stockhausen always have to be the gold standard of new music?
posted by WPW at 9:44 AM on April 30, 2009 [1 favorite]


"Well, that's what happens when you throw centuries of harmonic, melodic, etc. development out the window. New music isn't music anymore; it's just another subsection of the amorphous, high-browed, and overly-cerebral entity known as "art"."

Oh, I totally know why people say things like this. It's because they're stupid.

Look, I went to Speicus's doctoral recital a couple months ago, and along with the mannequin head that gave alien radio static, there was a piece that played with the sonata-allegro form that was recognizable as playing with that form, and fun and accessible, to me, someone who knows music almost exclusively from the popular idiom. (It didn't matter that he was somewhat parodying the form.)

I didn't enjoy everything, and I'm sure that of the stuff I did enjoy there was a lot more theory going behind it than I could appreciate or articulate, but New Music isn't some boogieman come to snatch your hooks and choruses away.

The first part of not being stupid is to realize that like anything else, it's a mixed bag, and that you should enjoy the parts you like and feel free to disregard the parts you don't like. But by going into a performance with an open mind, and a willingness to at least try to meet the composer half-way, you get both something worth thinking about and (usually) a pretty arresting sensual experience.
posted by klangklangston at 9:52 AM on April 30, 2009 [1 favorite]




Comments like:

Well, that's what happens when you throw centuries of harmonic, melodic, etc. development out the window. New music isn't music anymore; it's just another subsection of the amorphous, high-browed, and overly-cerebral entity known as "art".

and:

You can pretend to like something that just sits there quietly on your wall a lot more easily than you can pretend to like something that gets in your face and shrieks at you, all atonal and shrill.

and:


Oh, and I should add that a lot of new music is literally incomprehensible in the way it's intended to be heard. Did you know that one of the main "points" of serial music was supposed to be the entrance of each pitch?



...are all depressingly ignorant. What they refer to as "new" music is a compositional aesthetic that has not been pursued in any significant way for almost 50 years. There are more than a few composers alive in the world right now, writing music that is beautiful, compelling, accessible, enjoyable, etc. etc. YES, there was a period of time when atonality and extended studies in dissonance reigned, but that time passed years and years ago.

What the music composed in the last 50 years does not do, is focus on simple harmonies, or melodies, or obvious, short forms. It IS in extended, developmental forms (that can be hard to follow, but I love it like I love a great, thick book--worth the effort), it DOES have dissonance--but that is commingled and/or balanced by consonance--and it tends to focus on rhythm and texture as much as older elements of interest like harmony and melody. (To oversimplify the rich tapestry of musical composition of the past half-century.)

What it is not is the screechy-squawky boogeyman that seems to persist in the popular imagination! As a primer, I suggest checking out these composers--here are recommendations off the top of my head of a few well-established talents, and some new, up-and-coming American talents (who have free music on their websites!):

John Adams (esp. Naive & Sentimental Music, Harmonielehre, or the Violin Concerto)
John Corigliano (esp. Symphony No. 3 "Circus Maximus", or Mr. Tambourine Man: Seven Poems of Bob Dylan)
Mark-Anthony Turnage (esp. Scorched, or Blood on the Floor. Especially if you're a jazz fan)
Steve Reich (Music for 18 Musicians, or Different Trains)

Younger talents:

Mason Bates (composer and electronica DJ, listen to both musics here)
Carter Pann (listen to his new piano concerto, with the composer playing, here)
John Mackey (try this piece or maybe this one)
Joel Puckett (listen to this gorgeous thing or this heartbreaker
a href="http://www.jonathannewman.com/">Jonathan Newman (one of my favorites)
(mefi's own!) Steve Bryant (newest, beautiful piece here
(mefi's own!) Oscar Bettison (listen here, try Breaking and Entering)
posted by LooseFilter at 11:04 AM on April 30, 2009 [16 favorites]


Also what klangklangston said--while there are plenty of problems to address with contemporary concert music, dense, dissonant, thorny, unpleasant, obscure music is not one of them.
posted by LooseFilter at 11:07 AM on April 30, 2009


AND I'm a moron for not noticing that ob made this post, duh. (Hi Oscar, loving your music!)
posted by LooseFilter at 11:08 AM on April 30, 2009


This is dumb. It only makes sense if you declare your own (or whoever's) sub genera to be "new" music and whine about how no one likes it. Obviously there is a ton of experimentation going on in music, and lots of people like "new" music.
posted by delmoi at 11:19 AM on April 30, 2009


"The first part of not being stupid is to realize that like anything else, it's a mixed bag, and that you should enjoy the parts you like and feel free to disregard the parts you don't like. But by going into a performance with an open mind, and a willingness to at least try to meet the composer half-way, you get both something worth thinking about and (usually) a pretty arresting sensual experience."

I've been listening to hours of 20th century music in my music history class, and I simply can't stand most of the pieces after about 1930 (and neither can most audiences, apparently!).

"...are all depressingly ignorant. What they refer to as "new" music is a compositional aesthetic that has not been pursued in any significant way for almost 50 years. There are more than a few composers alive in the world right now, writing music that is beautiful, compelling, accessible, enjoyable, etc. etc. YES, there was a period of time when atonality and extended studies in dissonance reigned, but that time passed years and years ago."

50 years? What about the post-war serialists, "classical" electronic music, Stockhausen, etc.? Things have been improving in recent times, it's true, but contemporary music is still a far cry from the beautiful complexity of pre-20th century music.
posted by archagon at 11:22 AM on April 30, 2009


All that is IMHO, of course. No need to call me names.
posted by archagon at 11:23 AM on April 30, 2009


The standard trope about the arts in the 20th century is that they all followed a path leading toward increased abstraction.

In Arts and Letters Daily today is a review of a book called "Why Kids Don't Like School" which says that the brain doesn't like to think abstractly. (The book's pedagogical answer sounds like bullshit, by the way.)

I could go on and on, but, yes, of course we like the familiar and the pleasant, we like our dominant seventh chords resolving to the tonic, and we like our characters to fall in love and live happily ever after.

But sometimes we like to be jostled out of our familiar ruts, and the "modern" arts claim to have that as their primary raison d'etre.

Although, as others have pointed out above, "modernism" is a battered fedora these days, especially in music. Post-modernism is old hat too, of course.
posted by kozad at 11:29 AM on April 30, 2009


Well, post-war serialists were most most active in the 40s, 50s, and 60s, so, yes, 50 years ago (40-60 years ago more precisely). My point is, at least two full generations of composers have moved past that (after all, composers born in the thick of all that are now well into middle age).

"Classical" electronic music? Check out the Mason Bates and Steve Bryant links in my first comment to hear how that's evolved.

Contemporary concert music, in my opinion, has at least matched the "beautiful complexity" of pre-20th century music, and for my tastes in many instances has surpassed it. I refer you to the Adams pieces or Corigliano Dylan settings linked above for evidence.

The reality is that most books about 'classical' music, esp. text books, will only cover up to about mid-20th century, so that's all most people think has happened. This is not the case, there is SO MUCH great music out there that is simply invisible (inaudible?) to most people. (and I mostly blame people like me, professional performers and professors, btw, who often do a lousy job of getting this music to ears.)

(And I try not to call people names, though I don't shy away from calling statements that belie lack of awareness of salient facts, well, ignorant. Not the person, mind you, the statement.)
posted by LooseFilter at 11:40 AM on April 30, 2009


I've been listening to hours of 20th century music in my music history class

Also, I'm curious: have you been listening to the music of any living composers in that class? Which ones? Most 20th century music sections of the music history curriculum stop with the post-WWII avant-garde generation of European composers (Stockhausen, Berio, Ligeti, Messiaen, et al), and really stop with music composed in the early 1960s, if they get that far.

Lots has happened since then, and musical composition is actually fantastically interesting and dynamic and developing right now, but I've never seen a standard history or lit class that comes anywhere near to covering that (other than my own); special topics grad courses, maybe, but not curricular courses for undergrads, and certainly not for non-music majors.

Also, I can't believe I didn't mention Osvaldo Golijov earlier. Fantastic music, try his new opera or this piece.
posted by LooseFilter at 11:47 AM on April 30, 2009 [2 favorites]


YES, there was a period of time when atonality and extended studies in dissonance reigned, but that time passed years and years ago.

Then perhaps what you have is a marketing problem, since apparently a lot of people don't understand that.?

I think maybe the usual outlets for "classical" music, such as symphony orchestras and radio stations, were too slow initially to pick up on the new music movements like minimalism (Glass, Reich, Adams) that have since become more popular, leaving a long period in which most symphony-goers exposure to "new 20th century music" was nasty atonality in the Schoenberg vein. That's a whole generation or two of folks who were basically conditioned to think "New/Contemporary/20th Century = noisy and shreiky." It's just hard to convince them otherwise.

My dad has been a symphony goer in Kansas City for years and still in general holds a "new music is noisy" opinion, though I've managed to get some mild acceptance for Adams and Glass out of him. It was definitely Adams that changed my thinking about it - (e.g. "Harmonium" and the music in scene one of "Nixon In China" for the landing of Air Force One).
posted by dnash at 12:25 PM on April 30, 2009 [1 favorite]


Most contemporary visual art is about the ready-made, the remix, and the re-scrambling/ re-cycling of cultural iconography; it this respect it has more common with turntablism and pop micro-genres than with the artisanal practice of musical composition and performance.

Museum-going audiences can generally relate to a Hirst of Koons or Murakami exhibit simply as a product of of the same remix culture that they engage with on a daily basis. They don't have to "get it" to get it. It doesn't require a deep reading of the work; in fact, a lot of the work isn't intended to be read deeply in the first place as it is basically hypertextual.

Composed music demands close listening. Abrasive, difficult composed music requires even closer listening. The remix culture encourages a completely different set of listening habits.
posted by ducky l'orange at 1:34 PM on April 30, 2009 [1 favorite]


archagon: "Well, that's what happens when you throw centuries of harmonic, melodic, etc. development out the window. New music isn't music anymore; it's just another subsection of the amorphous, high-browed, and overly-cerebral entity known as "art"."

Er...yes, but the whole question is "why isn't it as popular as modern art?" Modern art has also thrown out centuries of compositional, thematic, etc. development, and isn't "art" any more, but is just another subsection of the amorphous, high-browed, and overly-cerebral entity known as "art". And yet it's still very popular. The question isn't "why don't people like new music", but "why don't people like new music, yet they do like new art".
posted by Bugbread at 3:41 PM on April 30, 2009


Yes. Back to the question. Answered above to some extent in that 1) modern VA is either a) abstract, thus inoffensive or even pleasant or b) kitchy remixes,and, also it can be digested in minutes. "Modern music," when it is defined as atonal (or serial or stochastic) takes more brainpower and time to digest. Plus, it is not predictable. We like predictability in our music. Art, maybe not so much. Why? Well, first of all, we have become a very visual culture, so we are more open to surprise in the visual realm. Music has become compartmentalized and focus-grouped so much that we can hardly expect the average person to appreciate Stockhausen. For that matter, there is a pretty small percentage of people who appreciate masterpieces like Stravinsky's Rite of Spring or Coltrane's A Love Supreme.

Only a somewhat larger percentage of people can look at a Mark Rothko, in my opinion, without saying, "My seven-year-old could do that."

In both genres, education (that is, listening, looking at, and maybe reading about) go a long way. Even very talented high school artists usually have minimal appreciation for abstract art.
posted by kozad at 4:43 PM on April 30, 2009


Interesting. Having posted this I wanted to let the thread run its course for a bit. Yes, the question is as bugbread put it.

Whilst I do think it can be problematic to compare art forms on anything other than a theoretical/technical level there are some interesting answers that have come up here.

There are also some assumptions here (and the Stockhausen reference is what throws things off. To riff off kozad's point, what if we take modern music to mean non-atonal (or even tonal) and perhaps even rock influenced, that is to say a large amount of contemporary music today? How does it compare to the popularity of modern art?
posted by ob at 4:58 PM on April 30, 2009


A couple of thoughts (more on-track, sorry):

--the nature of music (literally, its physical reality) makes it much easier to incorporate it into daily life. Technology through the 20th century allowed people to have whatever kind of music they like in their homes, then cars, then with them wherever they go. The resulting ubiquity of music (and its commoditization and marketing) allowed it to be incorporated into daily life in a way that visual art, sculpture, even theater and literature are not. It is thus more present and less special in an artistic sense, and I wonder if that makes people less inclined to seek out "art" music experiences when music itself is omnipresent in our lives; it is no longer a special experience, like viewing sculpture or paintings, etc.

--that ubiquity is possible because there is no literal musical object like there is with visual art. Music can be literally broadcast through the air, and has become much less rare and special as an artistic medium in the past century because we've been so successful at having all the music we want, whenever and wherever we might be. So I think some of the comparisons to modern art are somewhat orthogonal, because there are such things as objects of art in the visual art world, where in music there are only vibrations through the air.
posted by LooseFilter at 6:00 PM on April 30, 2009 [1 favorite]


And yes, I'm feeling a little redundant with those 2 points apparently. I meant to emphasize that if I want an "original" Stravinsky, I can play a phenomenally good recording right now and listen to it; or, if I live in a bigger city, I can go hear it live every now and then. But if I want to see a specific painter or painting, I have to go to the one place in the world where it may be (or the few places in the world where the works of that artist are displayed).

Nothing is lost in a good performance of Stravinsky--it is the authentic, original work of art; a poster of a Rothko, even a good one, is a very pale representation of the actual canvas.
posted by LooseFilter at 6:06 PM on April 30, 2009


Some of the more important points have been hit on above, namely:

1. With a piece of visual art if there is something you don't like you can just move along and put your attention on something you do like. There is no real pain involved in a visual art piece you don't like--you just skip it and move along. Even skipping 99 things you don't like to find one you do, can be quite rewarding. But imagine sitting through 99 pieces of music you abhor (length probably somewhere between 15 and 45 minutes each) just to find the one you actually like. People just won't do it.

2. The opposite end of the same stick--you tend to need more of a mass audience for a piece of music to be successful, especially if you're trying to make a success with life performance. In the sense of, if each piece of art in a show appeals to only 1/10th of the audience you can still have an overall very successful show because each 1/10th of the audience can gravitate towards those pieces that they naturally like. As long as there is something there to please most everyone it can still be a success, even though each individual work may have a 90% "rejection rate". And if one person likes a work enough to buy it then--success! It doesn't really matter that 90% of the gallery-viewing public hates it.

On the other hand imagine playing a piece of music at a concert where 10% of the audience loves it and 90% hates it. That pretty much defines the word "flop" right there.

However, the thing not mentioned above--and one of my particular interests--is:

3. For the vast majority of the listening population, musical tastes are rather firmly set by late adolescence and/or very early adulthood.

It's very hard for people to break out of these early musical preferences and what they tend to enjoy forever afterward is those same musical elements with a slight twist.

I haven't particularly studied preferences in the visual arts but my guess is they are far less set in stone than musical preferences (which are so strong some refer to them as "prejudices").

This strength of people's musical preferences sets some very definite parameters on what type of new music has any chance of being successful (if by "successful" we mean anything like gathering a somewhat large audience following).

Some of the entries in google search for musical preferences have more info. In particular you can search for terms like malleability of music preferences.

Compounding the problem, to develop a taste for any particular musical style you need to do a fair amount of listening to it over a period of time (months or maybe years) and #1, #2, and #3 together make it highly unlikely that most people will every get enough listening experience with a new style to "crack the code" and even have the possibility of starting to enjoy it.

Compounding the problem even more, the average person who spends a lot of time thinking about and listening to a lot of different styles and periods of music (to wit, composers of new music) tend to have very expansive and eclectic musical tastes--and have a very difficult time understanding why their potential audiences (the vast majority of the population who have relatively narrow and set musical preferences) are so different and so set in their musical outlooks.
posted by flug at 9:21 PM on April 30, 2009


Another factor why people might "like Rothko but not Stockhausen": easy recognition, not only of overall styles, but of individual works.

Show a Jackson Pollock to any philistine for 15 seconds, and they will be able to pick it from a museum collection. If instead of a philistine you have someone who aspires to conventional good taste (for certain values of "convention"), they can build on that recognition of a given work.

Play some Stockhausen or John Zorn to the same two punters for 15 minutes, and they most likely be unable to pick out the same work on a second listening, and probably not even tell one style or composer from another (except in the band formation or instrument design, that is).
posted by kandinski at 7:43 AM on May 2, 2009


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