There are two important principles I’d urge every newcomer to any new kind of music:
1) Never give in to the pressure to be impressed. There are many reasons that performers, composers, pieces of music become famous, and quality is only one of them. A lot of pieces of music get celebrated for stupid reasons of musical politics; many performers are swept into prominent places in the public eye by aggressive PR agents; some composers elbow their way to the top in what we can now call a kick-down, kiss-up fashion; critics have blind spots and hidden agendas. This is not to say that the music world’s a terrible and dishonest place, but to say that there’s no substitute for using your own judgment. Names mean nothing; Mozart wrote some trivial pieces.
Follow your own reaction to a piece: does it hold your attention? Does your mind wander despite honest attempts to hang on? Does the music occasionally surprise you? Does it lead you to expect anything in particular, and are those expectations fulfilled or thwarted? (Either can be interesting, or dull.) If you get a thrill of delight out of a piece or performance, it’s a good (or at least partially good, to the extent of that thrill) piece or performance, even some snob at the Times looked down his nose at it. If a piece bores you, there’s no reason not to say so – though it would be a courtesy to the audience members around you to not express your opinion too noticeably (eye rolling, ostentatious yawning) until the performance is over. Bring a book, and if the piece is too awful, read it, if there’s enough light. Booing is a grand old tradition that people enjoy without admitting it, standing ovations of one are entirely permissible and admirably brave. One of the things that has killed interest in classical music is intimidation, a feeling that people get from the expertise with which it’s surrounded that they’re supposed to like something because the experts like it. Hogwash. You have every right to your own opinion, and be adamant about believing that.
2) At the same time, keep in mind that there are lots of different kinds of musical enjoyment, some of them perhaps unrecognizable as such simply because you haven’t experienced them yet. What I always noticed, starting out, was that if a piece bored me, it was likely to always bore me, but if it irritated me, something interesting was going on. Probably the reason I became a musician was that I kept going back to
the pieces that irritated me to figure out why anyone would write something that’s irritating, and it’s amazing how often those very pieces – Charles Ives’s Concord Sonata, Terry Riley’s In C – later turned out to become favorites. Those were the pieces that opened up new types of enjoyment for me. It is not the composer’s job to come up with things that you like (because who, working in his studio, can predict that?), but it is his or her job (though a lot of bad composers deny this) to be clear and communicative. If you get the idea of the piece, the composer has succeeded, and the idea is yours to like or not. Again, watch your reaction – but don’t assume that your immediate reaction is the only important one. As far as I’m concerned, a forgettable piece is bad, but one I’m still thinking about three days later must have something going for it.
The pieces I love offer me lots of different things. Some give me goosebumps of emotion; some indulge my melancholy; some fascinate me with their cleverness; some have a boldness and brashness that I identify with, the way you identify with the hero of a movie; some are physically reassuring when played loud; some have a precise aesthetic “rightness” that I can’t pinpoint; some remind me of an earlier period
of my life; some overwhelm me with information and crowd my usual pedestrian thoughts out of my mind; some perplex me and I keep trying to figure them out. All of those types of enjoyment, and others, are just fine, and the more you expand the number of ways you can enjoy music, the more music you’ll enjoy, which is all to the better, right?
A few other things:
- Clapping between movements used to be standard procedure (hell, in the 18th century they clapped in the middle of a movement if they liked a tune, just like jazz concerts today), and the snobs killed it. A lot of us are trying to bring it back as a perfectly natural reaction. If you applaud from a natural impulse and people look sniffy at you, they’re the ones who are being pompously nontraditional. Stare back at ’em brazenly.
- If you’re trying to learn to like modern music, God bless you, and keep trying. All composers agree that 70 percent of it is junk, they just can’t agree on which 70 percent. To its everlasting shame, the late 20th century created a culture of ugly, gray, lifeless, “official” music, like Communist architecture. The great stuff got pushed underground, and is more difficult to find. Try Rothko Chapel by Morton Feldman and Terry Riley’s string quartet Cadenza on the Night Plain.
- Please forgive the pompousness and formality of the concert ritual. Most of us hate it too, and we haven’t been able to change it just because we can’t all agree what to do instead. If you show up at the Metropolitan Opera in a sweatshirt and blue jeans, think: “Some of these people may think I’m underdressed, but somewhere, Kyle Gann is cheering for me.”
– Kyle Gann