Kyle Gann follows up on the David Byrne vs. Bernd Alois Zimmermann controversy that sparked so much discussion here and elsewhere. While I still think people are trying to weigh down Byrne's arguments with baggage he did not pack himself, Kyle's excellent post cuts right the heart of the matter:
Proposition 1: not every thorny, complex, difficult-to-understand piece that's been written is a masterpiece, worth listening to over and over again.
Proposition 2: at least some thorny, complex, difficult-to-understand pieces are beautiful and profound, and those listeners who come to know them well derive immense pleasure from them.
I would hope that both of these statements would seem entirely sensible, non-controversial, and non-contradictory to most people who love music. But in practice, in certain circles -- circles readers of this blog are no doubt familiar with -- it is effectively impossible for anyone to make an argument that flows from Proposition 1 (especially: "this piece of thorny, complex, difficult-to-understand music is in fact a piece of shit") without people assuming that you are in fact launching a full-bore assault on Proposition 2 ("so you're saying that all my favorite thorny, complex, difficult-to-understand music is worthless???")
And look, I understand the defensiveness -- especially on the avant-garde jazz side, where the proponents of thorny, complex, difficult-to-understand music as The Way Music Must Be did not come anywhere near mounting a successful takeover of the academy, as the hardcore American serialists did. And nobody -- least of all myself -- wants to be seen as trying to re-ignite the Jazz Wars. But really now. We should be able to talk honestly about the merits or demerits of individual thorny, complex, difficult-to-understand works without everyone feeling like the fate of entire swaths of music hangs in the balance. And mentioning that a piece of music offers only thorniness, complexity, and difficulty, without the slightest regard for clarity, communication, and emotional resonance should definitely be fair game.
Anyway, go read Kyle's post, in which he delves into these issues at great length but with terrific incisiveness.
1. Seriously, this is David Byrne we are talking about, people. His latest project is a building as musical instrument. He's collaborated with Robert Wilson on his own crazy-ass operas. He's tried to make art out of a PowerPoint presentation. He's really into Giacinto Scelsi's single-tone music. And perhaps you've heard some of the stuff he did with that band he was in for a while back in the day. A lot of it is, um, pretty weird. David Byrne, of all people, does not hate experimental music. I kind of thought that went without saying.