I’ve been meaning to put this up for a while, it’s from Adam Gopnik’s article on abridging classic novels in the Sept. 22 New Yorker. I truly do not work at the speed of blog. Anyway, here it is, first on Moby Dick:
“The subtraction does not turn good work into hackwork; it turns a hysterical, half-mad masterpiece into a sound sane book.”
And in conclusion:
“The real lesson of the compact editions is not that vandals shouldn’t be let loose on masterpieces but that masterpieces are inherently a little loony. They run on the engine of their own accumulated habits and weirdnesses [is weirdnesses a legitimate-enough word for the New Yorker? really? awesome!] and self-indulgent excesses. They have to, since originality is, necessarily, something still strange to us, rather than something that we already know about and approve. What makes writing matter is not a story, clearly told, but a voice, however odd or ordinary, and a point of view, however strange or sentimental. Books can be snipped at, and made less melodically muddled, but they lose their overtones, their bass notes, their chesty resonance — the same thing that happens, come to think of it, to human castrati.”
I’ve left in the weird analogy to castrati at the end, because I think it’s part of his point - a creative artist has to be fearless enough to make really really weird, rather unpleasant analogies. And he has a good point. After all, what kind of nutcase would, say, write a symphony that’s 20 minutes longer than his previous one, which was already the longest symphony on record. And then do it again six symphonies later, this time adding chorus. And Beethoven (or maybe I should say Beethoven’s use of time, and not, say Beethoven’s use of motive or instruments or forms) is just one of many examples that jump out at me.
This has been governing my thoughts about my music of late; I’m finding myself trying to break down order in small ways. Particularly on my current project, instead of trying to shape the musical material, I’m trying to let it take me where it wants to go.
At about the same time I read the Gopnik, I came across this article by Bernard Holland in the NY Times about how he approaches the review of a premiere. I wish I remember where I saw the link, but it was months ago by now… Actually, I see now that it probably came from Nico Muhly. In general, I’m an advocate of the idea that the audience is the most important arbiter of a new piece, and that composers should find ways of connecting, musically, with the people who listen to their music. But something rubbed me the wrong way about what Holland wrote. I can’t place it precisely, but there seem to be contradictions between what Gopnik is telling me and what Holland is telling me. Holland isn’t saying, “don’t write things that are strange in an individual way” on the surface - he even says to surprise him. But when he writes “Give me your hand, your time and your devotion, says the ambitious composer, and I shall lift you to a level of understanding that will make you love me,” and twists that into “Beware of disliking my new piece lest you betray your ignorance. If anyone asks you what you think, just reply that you need to understand me better. Then change the subject,” I feel like he’s being awfully ungenerous. Does asking my audience to bear with me and give my piece a good, meaningful listen really tantamount to demanding unthinking adulation? It’s true, I am asking for your hand, time, and devotion - but I cannot require that you like the result. If you come to a concert with my work on it, you’ve chosen to spend time with my music, and I appreciate that incredibly. All I can give, in return for your time, is my music. Hopefully it will, um, lift you to a new understanding, but if you don’t like it, or even if you like it but it doesn’t transform you, I don’t ask you to “hide your ignorance” and change the subject.
I still can’t point to it exactly, but to me, Holland’s approach reeks of a lack of patience with messiness. Not everything messy will turn out to be a masterpiece and what isn’t great is likely to be god-awful, but I hope that Holland doesn’t rule out the great with the lesser.
I should mention that Bernard Holland is becoming a straw man here, whom I’m using to describe the anti-ideal listener. He probably doesn’t deserve the abuse - so read the above more as instructive than critical, OK?
Also, tangentially, Nico has a good post about new music that’s too long, too. Of course, it’s problematic in many of the ways that the Holland is - but in, well, a nicer way.10a1