that isn’t music

That’s not music! …is it?

A few weeks ago the vocal group Ekmeles performed a piece of mine on a concert of vocal music by Rutgers composers. (Yes, I am currently pursuing a doctoral degree in composition at Rutgers, so for the next few years, whatever other kind of composer I may be, I am also a “Rutgers composer”).

They’re an excellent group of performers, so when I got a chance last Friday night I went to hear them do a concert at the DiMenna Center here in New York. It was billed as a concert of music by 21st-century composers. I talked my friends Albert and Josephine (not their real names) into coming with me, having told them that the group had done a terrific job with the Rutgers composers’ music.

It turned out that the musical materials for most of the pieces on the concert were not actually singing, as such. These composers were working with mouth noises, breathing sounds, hissing, popping, and the like. What pitched singing there was was largely unmelodic: drones, pitched gestures of rapid gibberish. The one exception was a piece by Elliott Carter, most famous for his extraordinarily difficult string quartets; it says a great deal that the Carter was the most conservative piece of music on the program. This was more hard-core modern than I had expected, and some quick glances sideways told me that Albert and Josephine were…not having a good time.

The concert was about 90 minutes long, no intermission. Afterwards I greeted and congratulated the members of Ekmeles while Albert and Josephine waited, and then as soon as we had left the building I asked them what they’d thought. They were good-natured about it, but let’s just say I’ll be living down that concert for a long time; the word “bad” came up several times, as did the phrase “that’s not music!” Imitations of some prominent moments were attempted. Hilarity ensued.

My own reaction was different. While my own music is far more conservative in its materials—excuse me, stresses continuity with the European concert music tradition—I enjoy listening to the hard stuff, in this instance far more than the next guy. Ekmeles did a phenomenal job with these scores—they were energetic, precise and entirely committed. That said, I probably wouldn’t have programmed all five of those pieces on the same concert; I don’t care how avant-garde your tastes are, it takes more concentration to listen to something that makes its own language as it goes than it does to listen to something in a language you already speak. While the musical vocabularies common to classical music listeners may have crept up over the past half-century to include Schoenberg, Webern, maybe Messiaen, maybe Tan Dun, and of course Reich and Glass and all their children, this kind of music is still far over the border. By the last piece on the concert, my attention was flagging.

Interestingly, Josephine is from the dance world, and regularly sits through concerts featuring the music of John Cage and his cohorts. I would have figured that not much would faze her. Perhaps there’s something about the expectation of hearing singers that sets the musical palate differently than a pitful of electronic gear.

Music that’s a little different from what you know strikes you as new. Music that’s radically different from what you know strikes you as alien. With musical sub-cultures and sub-sub-cultures spread out along the spectrum in several different dimensions, how on earth could anyone possibly program a concert that “people will like”? Is it a good idea to try? By and large, audiences will self-select for the type of music they want to listen to; Albert and Josephine stumbled into a sonic world that was alien to them through no fault of their own. I will readily admit to having sat through concerts that left me similarly alienated, although on principle I would never say “that isn’t music.” That phrase has been wielded too venomously at too much music that is now revered. But it’s probably all right to whisper in the privacy of your own skull: “That isn’t music—to me.”