How Are We To Listen To Contemporary Classical Music?

by Jaime Green

Recently I went to Carnegie Hall for, I believe, the second time in my life, to see Gabriel Kahane and Orpheus Chamber Orchestra perform Gabriel’s “Guide to the 48 States.” I went to college with Gabriel, where our closest contact was probably when I was an assistant stage manager on a musical he co-wrote. Since then he’s established himself as a songwriter, singer and composer, one of the polymath hopes of classical music. The New York Times Magazine called him “a one-man cultural Cuisinart.” He’s composed concert music for himself, string quartets, and orchestras; he wrote the music and lyrics for a musical at the Public Theater; he first attracted attention for a gorgeous art song cycle called “Craigslistlieder,” settings of text from Craigslist posts. But what I have come to love is his, for lack of a better word, pop music. He’s put out two albums of beautiful, lush, interesting songs, simultaneously catchy and complicated. The only way I know to explain it is by analogy to books — on the spectrum from literary to commercial, Gabriel’s songs are way at the literary end.

The fact that I don’t know that musical equivalent, that I’m not sufficiently versed in the context, the terminology, really the field as a whole, reared its head and its implications at Carnegie. I went there to see a musician I love do a different kind of his music, and the difference was an obstacle.

I felt like I was missing something. Like I should like this music. Like I should get it. So I’ve asked for help.

That night’s composition, a commission by Orpheus (for baritone, electric guitar, banjo, and chamber orchestra), is made up of eleven short sections, settings of the WPA’s American Guide Series. The Guides were the result of a works project that set unemployed writers to creating travel guides for their states. The piece is described by Gabriel in the program as “a celebration of democracy.” It is a love-song to America, and a eulogy for the idea of America it honors. There are cowboys and California settlers, “A Ballade of Former Tramp-Days,” a spoken and sung history of black Americans in the nation’s capitol, and a beautiful and melancholic ode to Manhattan. In a section of text written in the voice of the guides by Gabriel himself, the writers of the Guides are honored, “working as carpenters of language with words as tools.” This section ends, “And the makers of this Guide have faith, too, that their book will survive; in the future, when it no longer fills a current need as a handbook for tourists, it will serve as a reference source well-thumbed by school children and cherished by scholars, as a treasure trove of history, a picture of a period, and as a fadeless film of a civilization.”

I understood that impulse, Gabriel’s and the writers’, and appreciated what they both were honoring. What I didn’t understand was the music. There were moments I loved, but they were either heart-swelling words like those or the musical sections that sounded like Gabriel’s songs. (They were the ones that sounded like songs at all.) Other sections of the piece sounded like… orchestral noise.

For help, I got on Gchat with a friend of mine who works in the classical music world and knows contemporary classical music well. Like me, like Gabriel, he is under 35. (Since I am introducing him as knowing contemporary classical music well, I, unfortunately, think his age needs mentioning.) We talked about music, difficult art, and playing fancy dress-up at Carnegie Hall.

Jaime: There were two big questions I was left with after the performance: dissonance vs. lack of melody, and appreciation vs. enjoyment — or vs. effect. The first is sort of a terminology thing, a where-does-this-fit-in-the-world-of-music. The second is more about purpose.

Anonymous Under-35 Friend Who Knows Contemporary Classical Music: Can I presumptuously assume that they’re related in that there were sections that you enjoyed more and realized that there was a technical common ground to your enjoyment?

Jaime: Definitely. They almost perfectly correlated to the sections that had melody. Because first I was thinking about dissonance. If I can make you my musical therapist for a second. And I was thinking, I’m fine with dissonance! I should be getting this. I like my Stravinsky, the piece [Schoenberg’s Verklärte Nacht] that was played before Gabriel’s. But a complete lack of melody is something else.

AUFWKCCM: Well it’s funny you mention Stravinsky in that context, because one of the things that every good music student discusses about the Rite of Spring is that the melody is pretty.

Jaime: Okay when I said Stravinsky I basically meant the music to the one ballet we saw like five years ago. But this need to posture and pretend to “get” stuff is another thing going on here. I wanted to *get* Gabriel’s stuff.

AUFWKCCM: Let’s leave the “getting it” for a second, because I think that’s a huge issue that plays out differently for listeners depending on where exactly they’re coming from. So forgive me for treating you really like a therapy patient, but I’m going to quiz you a little: did you sense a different connection to the piece when Gabriel was singing vs when he wasn’t, regardless of what was going on harmonically?

Jaime: No, because there were two modes of singing: some of it was melodic, some of it was jumpy and jangly and all over the place. (Melodic not necessarily meaning pretty and tonal, but just, like, had a line to it, if that makes sense.)

AUFWKCCM: It does. So for you, it’s not necessarily about having Words to listen to that makes it more enjoyable, it’s a more musical question?

Jaime: Definitely. As in: this music sounds so unmusical that I don’t enjoy it/it doesn’t have an effect on me. But first, I want to understand what’s going on musically then. I don’t want to be the asshole looking at abstract art and saying “my kid could do that!”

AUFWKCCM: Exactly. I’m really interested in that, not just in this piece, but in general. Especially for listeners like yourself who, in other non-musical artistic pursuits, are eyeball-deep in that sort of Challenging Art or whatever. Because there’s certainly nothing in Gabriel’s piece that is thornier than the Stravinsky Violin Concerto from the ballet, for instance. But he moves back and forth between harmonic languages.

Jaime: The Stravinsky ballet is also probably a cheat, too, because there’s pretty dancing the whole time. But there were sections of Gabriel’s piece that sounded like noise to me. I think it was a different thing than just dissonance.

AUFWKCCM: You’re right — there are a lot of elements besides just crunchy notes that contribute to the noise effect. But I hesitate to go down the road of “if you understood these technical aspects, you would enjoy this music”, because I definitely don’t think that’s true.

Jaime: Okay. So then what is it that I’m missing?

AUFWKCCM: First of all, you’re not. It’s not a failing to not enjoy certain pieces or pieces of pieces. Like when you look at abstract art, what goes through your head when you don’t like something?

Jaime: “Eh, that’s ugly.” or “Eh. That doesn’t make me feel anything.” or “Eh. I don’t find that interesting to look at.” (I have been known to sit in front of Clyfford Still canvasses for very long times.) But also I have been seeing — in media, in museums, in my grandmother’s house — abstract art for my whole life.

AUFWKCCM: Exactly. And I think for several reasons contemporary classical music hasn’t allowed listeners, or maybe invited listeners, to have that same sort of context that allows them to approach pieces with some confidence in their personal viewpoint. Do you think being in Carnegie Hall made a difference in your experience of Gabriel’s piece?

Jaime: Maybe. I think liking his singer/songwriter/”pop” albums did. Because I know I like some of what he does. And I feel like I like him as an artist because of that. So I felt I *should* like this, because Carnegie + that. It had the stamp of institutional approval, and the prior track record. But that raises another question. The audience at Carnegie was relatively young. For a thing like that. I assume I wasn’t the only person there coming in liking Gabriel’s albums and seeing this largely because of that. His albums aren’t unchallenging. But they’re accessible. Now I’m not sure what the question is. “How was I supposed to move from Gabriel’s albums to this?” How can it be accessed, I guess.

AUFWKCCM: That to me is The Question. Or is related to it. Because we have this conversation all the time about “indie classical” or “genre-crossing music” that is supposed to define this group of artists who do different things in different parts of the musical world, and the Business seems to want to make that into a commercial trend (young people at Carnegie Hall!). But what it really is, to me, is artists who are working with a lot of interests and influences and saying to listeners: All of this is me, you don’t have to like it all but it’s all genuine and it all has something I want to convey to you. So the access for someone who knows and likes Gabriel’s pop music, for instance, is seeing something familiar in sections of the piece (the cowboy song, the Chicago and NY songs, all of which could basically be on his albums) and experiencing them in a different context.

Jaime: The question I’m left with, then, is what sort of access a person needs to have a chance of appreciating/being moved by the really weird parts that just sounded weird to me.

AUFWKCCM: Here’s something to chew on: What either from the experience of that concert or from your life in general has a chance of spurring you on to go to more concerts of stuff you don’t know that you might like or might not?

Jaime: Hmm. If I came to this without any sort of personal investment, I might’ve left thinking, “That was weird. I’m probably not gonna do that again.” I mean, Carnegie itself is a pretty lovely place to see a thing. And this made me want to learn more about the WPA Guides to the States. But the one moment that inspired a “more like that, please” response in me was when the entire orchestra — all these adult people, seeming like serious musicians (Gabriel didn’t seem unskilled or unserious but he was there with his shaggy hair and young self and wide-lapelled blazer and jeans) — the one moment was when the whole orchestra set down their instruments and stood up and sang in a chorus. I had no idea what was going on, but I knew that I liked it.

AUFWKCCM: So do you think that the formality of the rest of the experience, besides the prettiness of Carnegie, is sort of a turn-off?

Jaime: No, I like that. It’s fun, like playing dress-up. I liked going to the bar beforehand and seeing all the old people in their fancy clothes, and me wearing Converse with my dress-up clothes.

AUFWKCCM: A-ha! That’s really interesting to me, because it comes up a lot when I’m talking to people about how to create an experience that “young people” or “cool people” will be excited about. The problem, of course, is that it’s not as simple as like putting serious music in casual spaces, because people like the dress-up experience, too. BUT, I think it creates a situation that doesn’t foster a lot of interest in experiencing more of that Difficult Music. I think it creates a situation where even smart listeners are looking for that moment that you mentioned, when the performance breaks out of the formality. And that’s maybe not the best thing for creating access to the difficult art part of the experience.

Jaime: I think the formality of the space mostly inclined me to like it more… or to feel like I should. It legitimized it. It’s what told me, “This is Quality Music. This is Important.” And so I was left feeling that I’d missed something. Whereas if I heard weird shit in a warehouse in DUMBO, I’d think, “This is some weird shit.”

AUFWKCCM: Fair enough. But if you only do it once a year or less, I don’t think you’ll ever be in a position to get beyond the point of feeling like it’s important but not liking it, as opposed to actually having some context for enjoying it. That context comes from hearing a lot of music of various types and being able to compare them, so a very occasional fun dress-up date, though totally valid as an experience as I said before, will not give you that.

Jaime: But what about the plenty of people who were at Carnegie because they (we) like Gabriel’s other work. And have no aural context for the — weird? challenging? a-melodic? — music? I mean, I went to a Philip Glass opera thinking I hated listening to Philip Glass, and I LOVED it. I loved the music. So that found an access route that didn’t require copious knowledge.

AUFWKCCM: That is an excellent example, because Philip Glass and other minimalists are tried and true gateway drugs into the world of “weird / challenging / a-melodic” contemporary classical music. I think Gabriel is a tricky example because the bridge between his pop music and his classical music is not quite so sturdy, but when I went to “Einstein on the Beach” at BAM, which is a serious challenge by many standards, it was packed with people who probably don’t spend a lot of time listening to really harmonically or melodically thorny contemporaries of Glass. So for me, the question becomes, should those people want to walk down the path and experience other contemporary classical music, or is it OK that they don’t? And more specifically a parallel for your line of questioning, should you want or need to understand and like the tricky parts of Gabriel’s piece, or is it OK that you take away a mix of enjoyment and bafflement?

Jaime: Well am I missing something that would let me enjoy the tricky parts? Or are they just unpleasant to listen to?

AUFWKCCM: That’s my point: tricky is in the eyes of the beholder. There were probably Orpheus subscribers in the audience for Gabriel’s show that hated the orchestra singing and the cowboy song, and probably felt it was unpleasant in the same way you felt the thorny art music bits were. So that’s why I’m more interested in what gets people intrigued enough to come to something else. Like having gone to “Satyagraha” and knowing Gabriel’s music both pop and not, would you come to like a Steve Reich or David Lang concert (probably not knowing much or anything about those people) if I told you it’s sort of a triangulation with these things you’ve experienced?

Jaime: (Here I go opening another can of worms): I’d go if it were cheap or free. I’d risk a few hours, but not fifty bucks.

AUFWKCCM: Amen. I mean, I feel the same way in many cases. Would you need me to personally recommend it?

Jaime: But I’d also need someone like you to tell me what to go to. I wouldn’t seek it out nor know how.

AUFWKCCM: JINX. I understand that, but it makes me sort of sad that people who are totally game for weird shit and seek it out in other artistic areas need an adult who actually likes that stuff.

Jaime: Well I just don’t know where to find it. I know where to find it in theatre because I worked in that world for a while and, honestly, still rely on trusted friends to tell me what good weird stuff is out there that I might not know about. For music I just don’t have a dozen knowledgeable friends, I have one. (Hi, it’s you.)

AUFWKCCM: The problem from my perspective is that I’m conscious of liking stuff that is not obviously enjoyable, so it’s a little hard to judge what to endorse and invite.

Jaime: Okay, so you liked the parts that I keep calling jangly weird a-melodic stuff, right? (And please what should it properly be called?)

AUFWKCCM: Yes. And lots of stuff that’s “weirder” than that, too. And again without going into a boring technical rant, it’s not BECAUSE of any particular feature that I like it. For me it’s the way that the music, in Gabriel’s piece or any other, interacts with other music that I’ve heard. Which is why I keep harping on context.

Jaime: Could you go a little into the technical? What was I hearing?

AUFWKCCM: There are a bunch of different things on a technical level. I think the things you were reacting to as weird were one of a few different things in the piece — a lot of it was rhythmic activity where the meter doesn’t stay the same long enough for there to be a real followable beat, which can be very disorienting (and feel related to melody and harmony at times). And then there are parts where the orchestra is just playing sort of textural sounds under Gabriel talking, which do not sound like pleasant music at all. That’s partly a texture thing and partly plain ol’ crunchy harmonies that sound like “noise.”

Jaime: Do you think the fact that you can recognize them is part of why you (can) like them?

AUFWKCCM: It’s related, but as I said before, the recognition of specific techniques is really a sidebar to just listening to a lot of different music and getting enjoyment out of how different composers and pieces explore different ideas and how they relate to each other. Occasionally, I’ll have an “Ooh, fancy!” moment, but that’s not the core of it. And I think many composers working today would be terrified at the thought of their music being enjoyed only by people who understand the nuts and bolts of it.

Jaime: So it’s an acclimation thing.

AUFWKCCM: It is. But I really hope it is or can be an acclimation thing that is not also a medicinal thing.

Jaime: Maybe I was hoping that the weirdnesses in Gabriel’s “pop” music would have acclimated me more for the other weirdnesses in his orchestral music. Maybe that was part of the disappointment. But, shit, is wine the metaphor? That I’m like ten years old. I’m like, ew. But if I try a little more, I’ll figure out what I like. And be able to appreciate the subtleties. But I can still always hate chardonnay. NOT THAT THIS SHOULD ALL HAPPEN WHEN I’M TEN. IN THE WINE METAPHOR.

AUFWKCCM: It’s not my favorite metaphor because it reveals your extremely inappropriate childhood but also it implies the same Need For Knowledge that allows wine experts to detect hints of balsa wood or whatever the hell, but you’re not off base. The point is that what you learn you learn from trying shit out and being like, yes/no, and some nos are going to stay nos, and that doesn’t mean you’re just not ready for it.

Jaime: So if I didn’t hate the whole thing, and I like music and being the youngest person in an audience in a fancy hall, I should keep trying. Are you just trying to save the entire classical music industry through my complete lack of ticket-buying power?

AUFWKCCM: It’s a long game.

Jaime Green is the managing editor of Columbia Journal. Photo of the ensemble singing by Matt Dine. Photo of Gabriel Kehane by Josh Goleman.