The life of a musical obsession can be predictable, consistently hitting a few arcs: taking one from punk fanboy to white noise aficionado, for example, from Bob Marley acolyte to assiduous student of Sufi trance, or from loving Stone Temple Pilots to despising Stone Temple Pilots to gaining a nuanced appreciation for STP’s objectives within their historical context.
A couple years ago, when I found myself the owner of multiple Merzbow CDs and one battered LP of Lou Reed’s Metal Machine Music, I figured I had reached my particular apex. Therefore, as I recently assembled the soundtrack to a full day of house painting, I was surprised to realize that somewhere along the line, an unexpected thing had transpired: I had somehow become one of those Guys Who Listen to Philip Glass Too Loud.
It’s not that longtime rock and roll sectarians can’t suddenly develop an appreciation for 20th-century classical music – much of the avant-garde since at least the 1960s has centered on the ferment kicked up by sophisticated theory and guerilla technique – it’s that, as someone with zero background in the history and terminology of classical music, I always assumed that much of it was way, way beyond me. I didn’t even know the rules.
And in a way, this still holds. Even half-hearted attempts to familiarize myself with the basics of musical theory have met with defeat: I continue to have no idea what key anything is in, I’ve got a terrible mind for tempo, and despite several trips to the dictionary, I couldn’t tell you what “modal” means, or what a “tonic” is. I am, if you will excuse the somewhat mixed metaphor, listening in the dark.
And yet somehow, classical music has made an impact, has sparked some kind of recognition, however poorly understood or parsed. It turns out that, like so many other things in life, you don’t have to understand how classical music works in order to use it.
In retrospect, the groundwork had been laid for years. In my twenties, I grew increasingly enamored with the instrumental largesse of vintage prog, a style that replaced the quick emotional rush of vocal melodies with textured instrumental dirges and wickedly convoluted rhythms. Later bands such as Sonic Youth, (in their experimental mode) Oneida, and Battles took up that mantle, focusing more on granular stretches of repetition, conceptual legerdemain, or blasts of chaotic mess. Meanwhile, the poppier side of indie rock was becoming more symphonic, lushly orchestral and intricately orchestrated. If rock and roll was getting this complicated, how bad could classical be?
Ironically, while rock was becoming more complex, modern classical music had been paring itself down. Minimalism had come to fore in the 1950s, stripping everything down to the duct work. Composers built entire symphonies around a pulse, a skeletal motif, or a single note. Mirroring what was going on in other highfalutin’ realms, the music became about the process, about the idea and how it was carried out. As someone who has always admired both the blunt miracle of the pop song and the conceptual prankishness of modern art, this certainly appealed to me, at least on paper.
Eventually I just started listening, writing down the names I saw popping up most in rock reviews, and getting CDs from the library. (The public library system is awash in modern composers, at least in Brooklyn, though I suspect everywhere; something about the orderly maelstrom of the music appeals to the curatorial mind.) As a result, I’m most familiar at this point with the big names – artists, which, since you’re visiting this Web site, I assume you’ve heard bandied about at least once or twice: Terry Riley, Philip Glass (pictured above), Steve Reich, John Adams, and the like.
With the exception of Adams, these guys are all august elder statesmen, and I know that attempting to write about modern classical music based solely on my appreciation of their ilk must be like writing a rock column having only listened to The Beatles, the Stones, The Who, and a little bit of Floyd.
So, authority won’t have any place here. Though I hope to write about new works as well as examine established ones, this column will be more about open-ended exploration and discovery than definitive judgment. It will certainly be critical, but in a thoroughly non-technical way. I will undoubtedly make mistakes and contradict myself many times over. On the bright side, I have no beefs with the current classical scene or what’s written about it, mainly because I have no idea what’s going on in either case. Any biases or blind spots I have will develop over time, and should be fairly transparent, and I won’t be pursuing arcane academic vendettas or trumping my own abstruse theories.
Finally, I don’t want to give the impression that classical music, either modern or, uh, classic, is something that you should be listening to. I don’t find that it’s any smarter, more rewarding, or more demanding than good music of any stripe. Rather, it’s just as disarmingly simple, fiercely complex, bafflingly idiosyncratic, and forcefully universal as any other art form worth spending some time with.
And if we happen to get a little lost along the way, well, sometimes unpredictability can be fun.
Photo of Philip Glass by Annie Leibovitz