August 2005

He Felt Like Shooting Himself

by Louis Torres

[On Anthony Tommasini, "Helping Music Audiences Get Beyond the Shock of the Contemporary," New York Times, December 25, 2004]

The occasion was a discussion following a performance last December of Pulse Shadows, a 65-minute song cycle with instrumental "episodes" for string quartet by the British avant-garde composer Harrison Birtwistle. At first, reports New York Times music critic Anthony Tommasini, the questions asked of the composer were polite. Then came the "aggressive" ones.

The most provocative question came from a man who waited a full half-hour to voice it. He said that the experience of hearing the piece, with its grim poetic imagery and aggressive modern music, was powerful, for sure, but depressing. "It left me feeling like I should just go home and shoot myself," he said. "Was that your intention?"

While that sinks in, and before I relate how the composer and the moderator responded to the question and what Tommasini thought of it all, let me pause for a moment to sketch the critic's view of avant-garde music in general and of the evening's performance of Pulse Shadows in particular.

Citing another concert he had recently attended--which consisted of a "typically bracing program of works" by the university-based "contemporary music" ensemble, Speculum Musicae--Tommasini laments that not many people had attended that event. He then observes that to most classical music lovers, concerts by Speculum Musicae "have an insiders-only mystique, like poetry readings in academic settings or meetings of the local chapter of the Sierra Club." "Contemporary music ensembles exist, in part," he declares, "because most mainstream ensembles are wary of new music and fearful of alienating subscribers who, it is assumed, like their music tried and true and resist challenging modern musical languages."

Tommasini's suggestion that mainstream ensembles shun "new music" for fear of driving audiences away is only partly true, however. Some musicians avoid it because, frankly, they cannot stand the stuff, while others, I suspect, do not even consider it music. Listeners who resist "contemporary music" are repelled by what they hear for the good reason that it is unintelligible and grates against their sense of life. The standard repertoire is "standard," or "tried and true," because it is accessible to most people, who find it emotionally satisfying, often even inspiring. It's that simple. But what does Tommasini know of that? Like many critics working today he has little understanding of the psychological effect of music on ordinary human beings. In that respect he resembles art critics who mock anyone who prefers traditional, "pretty" works--such as Renoir's Margot Berard [click on image to enlarge] (1879), a personal favorite, or Siena , by the contemporary realist painter Steven J. Levin--to really "challenging" paintings, such as Picasso's Ma Jolie [Woman with Zither or Woman with Guitar] (1911-12).

As Tommasini notes, Pulse Shadows [more] is based on Birtwistle 's intense personal response to Paul Celan's "abstract yet vividly imagistic poems" about the Holocaust. The text of nine of the "poems" is interwoven with nine movements for string quartet. (To gain an impression of the work, listen to the eighteen nearly minute-long sound samples provided by CD Universe, which are numbered in sequence on RealPlayer.) Like the Speculum Musicae concert, the one of Birtwistle's work--by the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center on December 3, 2004--was sparsely attended, with the 1,000-seat Alice Tully Hall only about a quarter full. What to do about such meager attendance? "Ideally," in Tommasini's view, "mainstream ensembles must embrace rather than fear challenging works, and the specialized contemporary music ensembles have to figure out how to entice audiences of civilians rather than just conscripts." Clearly, that has not happened. Nonetheless, he sees a glimmer of hope:

The small house for the . . . Birtwistle program grew smaller still as this gnarly and astringent music began, and a number of people truckled [sic] out. Still, those who stayed must have been provoked and engaged by the challenging music, because almost everyone who made it through the performance remained in the hall for a question-and-answer session with Sir Harrison that followed [emphasis mine].

"Engaged"? How could Tommasini possibly know this of each person? A great many factors beyond genuine interest might have motivated those who did not leave--ranging from fear of being thought rude, unfair, or unsophisticated to plain curiosity (What makes this Birtwistle tick?), which is what would have kept me from fleeing. In any case, the questions were "feisty and assertive . . . impassioned," Tommasini says, proof to him that it is impossible to hear this "elemental music" and not react strongly. Of course, one man's "elemental" is another's "inscrutable" or "agonizing"--or "inscrutable" and "agonizing."

To be fair, some of the questions asked of the composer conveyed genuine interest, but the one of concern here is that most "provocative" one, confiding that although Pulse Shadows was powerful, it was also depressing as hell--so much so that, as the questioner revealed, he felt like just going home and shooting himself. Was that your intention, he poignantly asked? It is not often, if ever, that one hears so private a feeling, especially one so fraught with despair, uttered in so public a setting. Reading the words on the page we remain once removed. Affecting though they are, we don't respond to them as intensely as we would have had we heard and seen the questioner himself. But how did those on stage respond? The composer was rendered speechless at first. The moderator, Bruce Adolphe (a composer himself, as well as Education Director and Music Administrator of the Chamber Music Society), however, was quick to assure the questioner that "all art, even when it deals with wrenching subjects, provides comfort by the very fact of its being an artful expression." If comfort is what Adolphe derives from listening to music (including the piece he had just heard)--or from reading fiction, or viewing paintings or sculpture--that is his affair. But for most people the experience is far more complex. What is most striking, in any case, is the sheer insensitivity of his remark.

By this time Birtwistle had composed himself and was able to respond. "Rallying," Tommasini reports, "[the composer] asked the questioner if he [had] felt like shooting himself after seeing Picasso's Guernica." The mind must reel at such a query. If Adolphe's response was pretentious and insensitive, Birtwistle's was utterly obtuse. Asked, in effect, Was it your intention that I feel so depressed upon hearing your composition that I would want to kill myself? he might have simply answered No, it wasn't, and added something like, I'm terribly sorry you felt that way. That would have been the decent thing to say. But perhaps Birtwistle was not sorry at all. Perhaps he even expected that Pulse Shadows would drive listeners, if not to self-destruction, at least to an emotional state matching its unrelentingly bleak sense of life.

Furthermore, Birtwistle's gratuitous rhetorical question regarding Picasso's Guernica (1937) [detail ] (that cartoonish mural painting is surely one of the most overrated works of the twentieth century) was absurd, for he could not have known if the questioner had ever seen the work in person, or how he would have responded to it if he had. In any case, it is unlikely that simply viewing Guernica would have driven the questioner (or anyone else) to contemplate suicide. More important, Birtwistle ignored the vast difference between the relatively brief experience of viewing a painting such as Guernica and the protracted experience of listening to a musical composition more than an hour long (even one without accompanying text). In the first instance, the viewer identifies the subject matter (if only subconsciously), then responds accordingly, and is free to continue looking at the painting or not. Music (or any arranged composition of sounds) is unique among the arts in that it lacks specific referents, and elicits emotional responses that are completely automatized, independent of conscious analysis or evaluation. Thus music is capable of packing a stronger emotional wallop than painting. As a composer, Birtwistle surely ought to know this.

The most reproachable character in this little drama is neither Adolphe nor Birtwistle, however, but Tommasini. Having upon reflection reported uncritically, even admiringly, the spontaneous cruel remarks of the two composers--which had been heard by relatively few people, and would now be known by countless readers--he coolly returns to his self-appointed task of helping music audiences (including people like the hapless questioner) get beyond the "shock of the contemporary." Guernica, he declares, is "at once a horrific depiction of war and a triumphant artistic affirmation" (of what, he does not say). Adding that Adolphe's art-provides-comfort thesis, together with Birtwistle's Guernica analogy, had made him think of Eugene O'Neill's Long Day's Journey into Night, he asks, "Why does that shattering, autobiographical play in the end provide uplift? Because, miraculously, [O'Neill] looks at his desperate family with unflinching honesty and presents the story with poetic elegance [Adolphe's 'artful expression']."

Then this:

Some of these aggressive questioners may have gone home still convinced that they did not like Sir Harrison's [Birtwistle's] work. But it clearly got to them and shook them up. Why else would they have remained in their seats for 45 minutes to take on the composer? I'd call that an excellent success.

"Got to them and shook them up." It sure did. I cannot recall a more callous remark by a critic, however.

Unmoved by the episode he had witnessed, all Tommasini can see in it is the marketing lesson it presents for music institutions such as the Chamber Music Society. The next time they try to present something as "challenging" as Pulse Shadows, he suggests, "why not promote the event for subscribers as a chance to hear a stunning work by a living master that may well confound [them], leave [them] dumbstruck even shocked. . . . New [i. e., avant-garde] music can be baffling, obscure, intimidating and otherworldly, just like new paintings, plays and poetry. Isn't that a good thing, a selling point?" No . . . it is not--not if it is aimed at ordinary people, that is, the sort who prefer their music "tried and true." But Tommasini has heard that before. "So the moral of today's sermon," he concludes , "is that mainstream institutions . . . should embrace challenging works, sell them as sometimes discomforting experiences that can be exciting because they are discomforting." For him, no doubt--but for most people? I doubt it.

I sometimes wonder how the questioner has fared. Perhaps, ironically, he was in the end able to draw some strength from the gross insensitivity, the heartlessness, of his responders. I hope so.