Serious Music Can Be Too Serious June 21, 1976

The term ‘serious music’ is now taboo, because it implies that only those within the hallowed European classical tradition are serious about their art. Naturally jazz musicians, Indian musicians, and others resent this implication, and I always avoid the term. Lately, however, I’ve been hearing some awfully serious music, and I’ve begun to think that the term really was an appropriate one. In fact, some classical music, especially in some of its contemporary manifestations, is so serious that I can hardly listen to it.

One has to look around a bit to find any pieces of contemporary classical music that have much sense of humor, and often qualities like sensory appeal and emotional expressiveness are also overcome by a kind of deadly seriousness. This happens with particular frequency in the academic world, where musicians sometimes want desperately to be taken seriously by their colleagues in other fields. But it also happens occasionally among experimentalists who, convinced that establishment culture is all phony, glossy, and superficial, decide to devote themselves to more serious questions of acoustics, electronics, or whatever. It happens in a lot of serious music.

One prime example is a work the Brooklyn Philharmonia played this spring. The piece was only 18 minutes long, and the forces consisted solely of a solo speaker and about 20 instruments, but these limitations did not keep the composer from claiming to deal with God, time, cosmos, death, man, the man, and being, in more or less that order. The texts ranged from the Upanishads to T.S. Eliot, and were read intently in six different languages. Needless to say, the material was quite condensed. Nietzsche’s version of the human situation was capsulized in one short section, for example. The beginning of the cosmos was dealt with in the final couple of minutes. Often the atonal music shifted around widely in an effort to live up to the pretensions of the occasion. It was a terribly serious piece.

Now I have nothing against seriousness, but there is a limit. I can go as far as, say, ‘Hamlet’ or the Ninth Symphony. If I am in a good mood, and a good performance is going on, my brain really goes to work, and I can get wrapped up in such things as much as the 1976/amateur-music-christian-wolff-and-others person. But I think the reason I can do so is because even these works are not all that serious. There are plenty of comic moments in ‘Hamlet.’ And Beethoven eases off in his scherzo, not to mention the ‘Ode to Joy,’ which is actually fairly easy listening much of the time. Moreover, although these are long works, they attempt to communicate only a limited number of profundities. Even Shakespeare and Beethoven never attempted to bite off as much as this contemporary composer did. Perhaps he is just more serious than they were, though I find it much harder to take him seriously.

Actually, quite a bit of serious music is too serious for me to take seriously. Elliott Carter’s Third String Quartet has no philosophical pretentions, but the last time I put on my recording and attempted to unravel some of the logic in this jungle of logically placed notes, I began to feel really ridiculous attempting such a hopeless task. I just gave up and put on something else. I sometimes have a similar reaction when I attempt to deal with the more serious efforts of Charles Wuorinen or Roger Sessions, just to pick a couple of obvious examples.

But the problem is not limited to highly complex pieces. It sometimes arises in simple ones as well. For example, this spring at the Kitchen I heard a concert of taped pieces that seemed overly serious in a completely different way. One 45-minute work dealt with ‘the death of Chuang Tzu’ and consisted solely of sustained breathlike sounds fading in and out. The sounds were pleasant, the recorded quality was excellent, and I drifted along with the idea for quite a while, noticing subtle differences between various sounds, and pondering what I remembered of Chuang Tzu’s dream-and-reality theories. But 45 minutes is a long time, and eventually I became restless. I attempted to revive my interest by wandering around and listening from different parts of the room, but then I lost interest in that, too, I spent most of the last 10 or 15 minutes wondering why the composer was pressing the point so far, and how he could seriously expect me to be interested in those breathing sounds for such a long time, when there weren’t even any performers to watch.

Admittedly, someone who is genuinely involved with meditation and mandalas would perhaps have appreciated this long, restful span of breathing sound and know how to deal with it. Similarly, someone who is intensely involved with the specific techniques of intricate pitch and rhythm manipulation, might be able to maintain a high level of interest while listening to complex pointillistic works. And perhaps someone who knows many languages and has read most of the world’s philosophy and poetry might even have been able to deal with that Brooklyn performance. But most of us are not quite that serious about our musical intake, and I sometimes wish that composers weren’t either. It could get to be a serious problem.