I don’t often do the critiquing-the-critics thing, but this one is such a doozy I couldn’t resist. It comes from none other than … oh, you’ve guessed it already – Bernard Holland.

GEORGE PERLE, who turns 93 next month, is a rare survivor of a disappearing movement. The general public will barely notice its departure, given that not many people know it ever existed.

Mr. Perle belongs to a second generation of explorers. I doubt there will be a third.

Really? No atonal composers two generations down from Schoenberg? No Stockhausen, Boulez, Nono or Kagel? Presumably a fourth generation of Ferneyhough, Kurtág, Lachenmann, Spahlinger and Sciarrino is even less likely…

… I admire Mr. Perle’s music, although I can’t say I like it very much. He speaks a language he and his contemporaries made up. I can speak only the languages I was born to.

Gaa gaa goo goo. Funny, I always thought languages were something you acquired through learning. But maybe the billions of people who can comfortably speak two languages are wrong and Bernard Holland (and Plato) is right.

Sometimes I feel guilty. Maybe I should work harder at his grammar and vocabulary.

What, you write professional criticism of a medium you admit you can’t be bothered to engage with? Why would you feel guilty about that?

… How did all this atonality business start? A number of 20th-century composers said that it was the necessary next step, that old ways of listening had worn themselves out. It sounds reasonable to say that Anton Webern’s Piano Variations take up where Brahms left off. I admire the Webern; I even like it for its strangely satisfying space-age spirituality. I don’t think it has anything remotely to do with Brahms.

The Webern, and music that constitutes Mr. Perle’s immediate heritage, is altogether new.

No it isn’t, it’s 80 years old, from the mid-1920s

It is as if music history in the mid-1920s had stopped dead in its tracks.

– See, you even knew that bit!

… Until the 20th century musicians obeyed natural laws of physics.

No they didn’t. From around the late 17th century they started to bend and reshape the laws of physics to fit their own practical and aesthetic needs. It’s called equal temperament – ever seen a piano, Bernard?

Pick up a rock, drop it, and it falls to the ground. Music was the same. Send a piece of music up in the air, doctor and twist it, make it major, minor or modal; in the end it wants to come down to where it started. You can call the process tonality or music’s law of gravity.

This by the way has nothing to do with physics or the inherent properties of sound. The decision to end a piece of music in the same key as it began is an aesthetic one, hence the very large number of pieces from all periods and in all styles that don’t end where they started from. You’re confusing taste/cultural heritage/ideology (pick your own register) with fact. (And why should I care about physics anyway? Do writers, painters, actors, dancers, film makers, etc worry about obeisance to “laws” outside their control?)

… It is interesting that Mr. Perle’s take on 12-tone music flourished just as space travel was coming along. He and eminent colleagues like Milton Babbitt and Elliott Carter were our musical astronauts. They defied gravity and left Mother Earth behind.

It’s even more interesting that as he was giving first expression to serialism, Schoenberg set the text “I breathe the air of another planet”. Think about it. One can only wonder what Yury Gagarin – who became the first human in space in 1961, the year that Babbitt produced his first works with the RCA Mark II Synthesizer – made of it all.

If you can face it, there is more.

Update: a commenter to Lisa Hirsch’s blog calls me out on my “hissy fit”; I’ve posted a response there if you want to read more.


7 thoughts on “Spaceman

  1. I made it my New Year’s resolution not to mention this guy on my blog, so thank you for giving me a space to bitch about his idiocies in public. I’m glad he’s finally learned to appreciate the music of George Perle, but yeah, it’s really too bad that he seems to have no idea what atonality, or tonality for that matter, actually is.

  2. Thanks, Spaceman. I read the article yesterday and found it a waste of ink — completely uninformative and self-absorbed. Holland’s been having this argument with himself for thirty years. This kind of article always sends me running back to my Wolpe and Babbitt CDs.

    And what’s with the “new” release on Bridge? It’s been out for over a year. I went back and listened to the piano serenade yesterday. A very attractive piece.

  3. You beat me to it, and I will just link to you. I emailed a lot of ranting to Marcus Maroney yesterday (Sounds Like New, when he’s blogging).

    That review is so bad that I believe it justifies a letter to the Times public editor. It’s terrible journalism to assign a review to a reviewer who expresses contempt for the style in the review – not to mention the fact that this guy used to be the Times’s chief classical music critic.

  4. I kept thinking of that Eddie Izzard bit: “Two languages in one head?! No one can live at that speed!” (“But the Dutch speak four languages and smoke marajuana.”)

    I won’t criticize the historical-confluence school of criticism—I deploy it often and with great enthusiasm—but I will note that you could re-write Holland’s moment-in-time thus:

    “It is interesting that Mr. Perle’s take on 12-tone music flourished just as the civil rights movement was coming along.”

    Hmmmm… that IS interesting.

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