20 January 2014

Guest post: Celeste Oram

or, code words for lazy listening

Celeste Oram

How we talk or write about music is vitally important to do well, because it strongly shapes how we hear music. When categories and classifications begin to settle in our conversations about music, ears begin to listen within those boundaries. We listen for such distinctions, turning listening into a game of taxonomy rather than discovery.

Three giant magnetic poles have dominated recent conversations I’ve had about music with composers and other musicians. They’re distinctions I’ve always been aware (and slightly suspicious) of; but seeing them used in action lately has, once and for all, made me believe it’s time to cash them in.

What’s frustrating about the three false polarities I’ll explain below is that they are generally used as polite synonyms for 'us' and 'them'. Each tribe proudly erects one word as their campsite's flag, and sneers the other as a pejorative. So the words are no longer used as thoughtful descriptors of music; instead, they’re used as deeply biased value judgments, confirming prejudices rather than challenging them.

Yet the most troublesome thing about these distinctions is that they describe surface only. The labels are awarded according to superficial, isolated tokens of style, identified by looking through a fuzzy squint rather than a microscope. But the labels schlepp massive historical and ideological baggage around with them, and so stamping them onto (especially, but not exclusively) new works by young composers grafts totally unrelated philosophies onto the music, like some Frankensteinian transplant operation. The music is surgically engineered into a zombie, a host for undead musical ideologies (undead because they were never really alive in the first place, but persist in eating people’s brains). Meanwhile, the listener’s thought and attention have been short-circuited away from the music’s actual soul and substance: the interplay horizontally across surfaces and vertically between their layering. What’s more, the trap then opens up underneath composers of writing on this superficial level, relying on ideological barnacles to lend weight to the sounds they choose.

If this reads as being drenched in the young composer's hubris of expecting everyone to listen to their music 'properly' (you're listening to it WRONG! you don't UNDERSTAND it!), please understand I simply use the personal illustrations regarding my own music to show I'm not tilting at windmills.

(1) tonal vs. atonal
[what people think they mean: music that sounds nice vs. music that doesn't]

The deceptiveness of this distinction is well-argued, but it’s still a common conversation opener: "Oh, you're a composer! Do you write tonal or atonal music?"

Many tedious essays have expounded the pedantics of what “tonal” and “atonal” actually mean; that lack of consensus alone reveals the crudeness of using those words as two poles of a continuum. The complications are well-trodden: almost all music uses both consonances and dissonances; even ‘nice-sounding’ music doesn’t necessarily use harmony in a functional sense; even ‘weird-sounding’ music might well have some tonal centre or choose pitch according to principles of common harmony and voice-leading. Plus, consonance and dissonance are hugely subjective concepts, meaning different things to different ears in different contexts.

Beyond technicalities, this line in the sand is also unhelpful in the way it privileges pitch/harmony as the most significant musical element. The assumption that the very first fork in the road is a choice between tonality and atonality neglects the significance of rhythm, form, gesture, texture, and various other fundamental parts of musical DNA. Even in the case of works where pitch is crucial, to consider pitch in isolation from other elements is misleadingly reductive. And for many contemporary works, latching onto pitch to find your way through the piece is like busting in through the back door and completely missing the grand sweep of the central staircase. Whether John Cage’s Water Walk is tonal or atonal is hardly the point.

But I think the reason that people are aware of these complications and yet still think in terms of the tonal/atonal divide is because they usually use those words when they mean something else. ‘Tonal’ and ‘atonal’ come bundled with attendant associations, largely informed by personal tastes and prejudices. This crucially affects listening, because deciding to hear one thing can then conjure up hallucinations of certain qualities – or throw up blindspots in front of others. If you’re of a certain persuasion, one crunchy chord or unhummable melody might be enough to make you assume the music willfully impenetrable and stop listening for expressivity or a thread between pitches; if you’re from another camp, too many triads in a row might close your ears to the music’s craft, complexity or originality.

Ultimately, the either-or mentality reveals zilch about the fabric of the music itself: how consonance and dissonance (and everything in between) are being used, to what ends, and why. It identifies which language family is being spoken without making an effort to comprehend which language exactly, or even what is being said. And if words have the effect of stunting meticulous listening, that’s a problem.

(2) European vs. American
[what people think they mean: may contain traces of serialism vs. may contain traces of minimalism]

This divide generally gets used as the atonal-tonal distinction in disguise. But its major problem—perhaps even a dangerous one—is that it talks about music not on musical terms, but political terms. Geotagging music to either side of the Atlantic is tantamount to conscription: it accosts music on the street, dresses it in a uniform, and uses it to act out toy soldier battles.

Because, surely, the mutiny against serialism was motivated just as much—if not more—by political, rather than musical, factors. The story goes that, fed up with the stony-faced games of postwar serialism, composers (chiefly in the States) thumbed their noses and carved out a ‘new tonality’. But the chance to usurp centuries of European cultural hegemony clearly had something to do with it too – especially after that hegemony had so spectacularly self-annihilated. American minimalism was the soundtrack to the Boston Tea Party happening all over again.

If minimalism is the music of prosperity, growth, and imperialism, meanwhile, in serialist music, I hear penance. It's the penance of a society whose deeply loved and exalted art has proved untrustworthy. Beauty cannot be trusted, heroism cannot be trusted – poetry after Auschwitz cannot be trusted. Expressiveness is a dangerously indulgent luxury that must now be rationed: because the same collective imagination that crafted music drenched in expression and artistry also turned out to be capable of engineering horrific destruction. Amidst this ascetic emotional austerity, serialist music kept on coming in a deluge, like some frenzied self-flagellation desperately trying to scourge something from art – to punish art.

A few people recently have told me my music is ‘European’. In doing so, they’re essentially dressing it in a uniform that is eleven sizes too big for it. I get the stylistic red herrings that earn pieces the ‘European’ or ‘American’ label, but calling them that conflates surface trinkets with the circumstances behind the major cultural peripeteia of the twentieth century (or at least that which affected Western art music); it’s insultingly reductive of the trauma of those circumstances.

I wasn't even alive when the Wall came down. The baggage of twentieth-century Europe is not my cross to bear. Yes, my generation absolutely carries its own burden. But describing our music by way of last century’s cultural distinctions only deafens listeners to today’s cultural circumstances that shape our music and—most importantly—how we are using the tools handed down to us to articulate what we have to say.

[Another funny thing is that plenty of die-hard modernists love to use ‘American’ as particularly juicy invective for music that is (in their books) simplistic, quasi-cinematic, and/or crowd-pleasing. In other words, it’s become a synonym for ‘anti-intellectual’. Which is sad, in light of America’s staggeringly rich artistic tradition to which belonged some of the late-nineteenth and twentieth century’s most formidable intellectual heavyweights (including a fair few brainy, gnarly composers). So the word ‘American’ doesn’t even get used in a way that accurately invokes the country’s artistic spirit.]

(3) absolute vs. programme music
[what people think they mean: music about music vs. music about stuff]

Recently I wrote a short orchestral piece that was in large part inspired by Kafka's short story Metamorphosis - bugs, lots of little legs, bug-eye vision, rotting apples, etc. On one occasion, I told a listener as much, outlining the episodes of the story that to my imagination invited musical rendering. After hearing the piece, the listener told me that it had some interesting sounds, but on the whole it relied too much on the programme and didn't have enough musical logic. On another occasion, I played the piece to someone and told them absolutely nothing about it (in fact, I had only just met them). I was congratulated for an adeptly-crafted work with a perfectly proportioned musical structure.

Granted, this is hardly a scientific experiment, and I do value the fact that different people will always respond differently to music. But it does raise the suspicion that the second-hand modernist prejudice administering programme music's second-class citizen status gives the listener a convenient excuse to dismiss a piece a priori. (Which is useful, in the face of the terrifying glut of new music out there and yet all the competitions that nonetheless need to be judged!)

To some listeners, any whiff of a programme grants well-sanctioned permission to forgo listening for a piece's own 'musical logic'; the assumption is that there isn't one. People have asked me if my work draws on ‘extra-musical inspiration’ in a tone of voice as if they’re asking whether I still have trainer wheels on my bicycle. But a piece drawing on creative strands from elsewhere, and drawing a sound formal logic around its own creativity, are not mutually exclusive. Notes still have to be chosen somehow.

And ultimately, what music doesn’t operate on a metaphorical level? The exaltation of ‘absolute’ or ‘pure’ music purports that music comes out of a vacuum, like some kind of creation myth of virgin birth. But perception is messy. Cognition is messy. Composing is really messy. As soon as notes go through an ear into a human brain, they are no longer ‘pure’ notes – they get stained and spattered with all sorts of referential grime. I’m yet to be convinced that even basic and essential musical gestures, like a rising melodic contour or a persistently repeating motif, aren’t perceived—even in the haziest sense—metaphorically. Because if not, then music is just left as a garbled jumble.

It’s certainly true that too much information can stunt a listener’s response to a work if it just carves out which lines their imagination should colour between. But to insist on the canonization of ‘pure’ music above all others strikes me as modernist posturing that is either delusional or dishonest about the way music is actually let loose in the world. I’d agree that, like the tooth fairy, ‘pure music’ is a nice transcendental ideal to believe in – but the dubiousness of its existence is shaky ground on which to construct an unimpeachable aesthetic hierarchy.

Extra-musical influences in music are so often seen as a kind of crutch: for composer, performer, or listener. But a fair trial for charges of intellectual snobbery await musicians who claim that there are ‘good’ and ‘bad’, ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ types of musical perception and comprehension; that those who can listen without an extra-musical ‘filter’—look ma, no hands!— are privileged to a more authentic, more ‘real’ musical experience. It smacks unpleasantly of religious sectarian infighting, each camp claiming that their connection to the divine is the real direct dial. And as evidence for the prosecution, I’d point out how puzzling and amusing it is that even Greenberg’s poster boy did such a lavishly Romantic thing as to call his greatest painting ‘Lavender Mist’.


I think I will add this to my list of New Year's resolutions: don't ever use any of the aforementioned six words ever again, ever. They are meaningless. If the way I’ve interpreted these words seems simplistic, it’s because the specificity of the words themselves have been exhausted. So what’s their use? Within these false dichotomies are countless subtleties which demand different words if they are to be properly explored.

So let’s find some more interesting words to talk about music with. And most importantly, LISTEN. Listen to what the music what is doing: not to dead white men explaining it for you.


  1. a really good article that certainly gets one thinking about how to discuss and critique music. however i would say that you fall into your own trap a little when you talk about "delusional or dishonest" modernist posturing that holds up pure music as an ideal. what you seem to be saying is that all music is programmatic; there is no dichotomy because pure music doesn't exist. i would contend that all music is essentially sound - music can exist without a programme, but the programme can't exist without sound. so i don't think you weigh the two camps evenly as you do in your first two false dichotomies - and extra-musical influences aren't just seen as a crutch, they often Are a crutch that prevent access to a musical language often far removed from its subject matter. i would come down on the other side of this argument and say that we've been programmed throughout our music education to rely on the extra-musical to explain music. a great number of excellent performers are completely unable to comprehend an idea of music without some concept of inspiration or what the composer was feeling at the time he wrote it.

    1. thanks Alex, these are really good points... you're right that all music is 'just sound', but what I'm getting at is that as soon as that sound goes into a brain, it's no longer 'just sound'. so 'pure music' exists in a Platonic sense but not in the messiness of real life. perhaps I should have made a clearer distinction between textbook 'programme music' (this is the bit where the fairies dance through the woods) and perceiving music metaphorically: and I don't mean this in a simplistic pictorial sense; I think metaphors operate most powerfully on an abstracted level.

      so sure, not all music 'has a programme' (thinking of it like that only gets you as far as 'divining the composer's intention' which, exactly as you say, is not very far), but I think all music is both created and perceived at a metaphorical level.

      ...and (as I mentioned before) the act of 'explaining music' in words itself is 'extra-musical'. so what else have we to rely on, if not the 'extra-musical'?

    2. there's a big difference between explanatory language as "extra-musical" and the extended metaphors of programme music as "extra-musical". of course we have to rely on language - that's inarguable. to some extent, metaphor is unavoidable, but the further language gets away from what it is describing... the article insists that we pay attention to the subtleties of tonality, aesthetic, form - but by also insisting on the "messiness of real life"/cognition and the inevitability of metaphor i think maybe you leave us too much room to ignore the subtleties, even to ignore the musical stuff itself... no?

    3. actually i think there's a case to be made that the further language gets from what it is describing, the more imaginative space it opens up. for my own tastes at least, i find that scientifically precise exegesis of the 'musical stuff itself' is often extremely interesting, but it only gets you so far -- and a bit like chasing rainbows, it can make the mystery wear off a bit...? or maybe i'm not understanding exactly what you meant by your last sentence...

    4. i guess what i meant, rather than a "scientifically precise exegesis", which is rather a mischaracterisation, i mean for language to be true to music, rather than to invent it. when you say "it only gets you so far" - what do you mean? so far to where? what is the goal? as for the mystery wearing off, i don't think that's true - the more you know about something the more interesting it becomes. why even talk about it at all? surely writing about music is like dancing about architecture? haha.