02 July 2009

Grandma, What Big Ears You Have

Some time ago, in a discussion of some musical work which gives general satisfaction, wherein someone contemned the piece, I replied:

The fault is not in the piece; your listening gear needs to be recalibrated.
Today, in discussing Le sacre du printemps, I had occasion to reiterate this remark. Another neighbor asks:

How far do you go with it? Do we always need to say it’s the listener’s fault if he/she doesn’t like something?
That is a good question. In general, I am apt to say “yes.” (It will be more diplomatic if we find some term other than “fault” to lay at the listener’s feet, but take the point.)

For one thing: I hardly know of any case of a composer writing anything to the end that he himself should not like it.

—Let’s shed the negatives: In 99.99% of the cases, one important component in the composition process is pleasure that the composer himself takes in the sound. (I know that that is the case with 100% of the pieces I myself write.) In the case of Le sacre, it is obvious not only that the composer himself took pleasure in the work, but that audiences for nearly a century have taken pleasure in it, too.

For another: It can only be the slenderest fraction of music written, where it is true both that the composer takes pleasure in the music, and inversely true that no one else who hears the music takes any pleasure in it. I know of no such piece.

For a third: The regularity of noise about how this or that new fashion of music is “the end of music” notwithstanding, historically the composer has practically always been vindicated. History teaches us that, in a statistically overwhelming number of instances, when uncomprehending contemporary audiences have pronounced this or that piece “beyond the pale,” a later epoch has, in fact, relocated the pale.

Corollary to the third thing: A listener’s displeasure is such a tender thing; if the listener has not learned (let us borrow a Zappa expression) to “wear the big ears” (and it is a mode of musical thinking which many of us labor, in some degree, to adopt), he doesn’t like the piece because it doesn’t sound like his favorite piece or composer, or because it doesn’t sound like much other music which he likes, or because he had a row with his supervisor earlier that day, or because Michael Jackson died.

Further corollary to the third thing: A listener’s experience of music changes over time. Any listener’s immediate dislike of a piece means nothing about the artistic quality of the music.

All that said: The listener retains complete freedom to like or dislike whatever music it please him, for whatever bundle of reasons it please him. It will be greater honesty (especially in cases where, clearly, a “critical mass” of listeners have endorsed a given piece of music) for the listener to acknowledge his dislike simply for the dislike which it is (and, possibly, a dislike which may after prove impermanent), rather than taking his dislike as necessarily mapping onto aesthetic “absolutes,” somehow indicating that the piece of music under advisement is “rubbish,” just because he says so.

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