Listening is Everything

A dialogue between a composer and a skeptic

by Robert Xavier Rodríguez

Stagebill, 1982

A new work by the composer has just been performed. The skeptic approaches the composer backstage.

Skeptic: I didn't like your piece.

Composer: I'm disappointed, but there's nothing that everyone likes to the same degree. What bothered you about it'?

I didn't understand it. It didn't make sense.

Ah, but those two statements don’t automatically go together. If someone started speaking to us in the English of Chaucer's time, we probably wouldn’t understand him; but that wouldn't mean he wasn't making perfect sense in his own language.

But why should he speak to us in Chaucerian English in the first place? We speak modern English.

Exactly. And I write modern music. Every day on television and in the movies and on the street we hear the sounds of the twentieth century. We see modern art and modern architecture. We wear modern clothes. Now all of a sudden in the concert hall you want a powdered wig and exclusively archaic language?

Why not? It’s the language I understand. If you’re going to talk to me, you're going to have to use the language I understand.

Good things are timeless. That's why we continue to love the art of the past. It's also why we have the capacity to love the art of the present.

How can I love it if I can't understand it?

Good things are usually multi-layered. If we grasp all there is to understand the first time, then there's nothing to draw us back again and again.

You mean things have to be complicated and incomprehensible to be good?

No. The point is that accessibility, or the lack of it, is simply not an applicable measure of quality. Some great composers, such as Verdi, had an immediate appeal, even in their lifetimes. On the other hand, the history of music is also full of misunderstandings in which the composer and his audience are initially at odds, only to catch up with each other after a few years. Before the turn of the century George Bernard Shaw thought that exits in theaters should be marked "in case of Brahms." By 1936 he had changed his mind.

You mean new music is an acquired taste?

It can be. When we were children we probably didn't like oysters, fine wine and
a lot of other good things that make life worth living.

But some of that music is just not any good and no amount of time is going to help.

That's true. All new music isn't good any more than all old music is good. In fact, most of the music from any period is bad. The reason we seem to hear so much bad new music is that we are hearing the raw unfiltered product – the bad along with the good; whereas, with old music we are usually hearing only the cream – the tiny percentage which has passed the test of time.

I'm willing to wait.

But think of the thrill of hearing a masterpiece for the first time and knowing that in a way you helped to discover it.

How do I know it's a masterpiece, if I can't understand it? It's like hearing Hamlet in Chinese.

Hamlet in Chinese still has variety, shape, direction, conflict, intensity, a certain style. Once you get past that initial barrier, even if the plot remains fuzzy, you can still make some fascinating associations. Words that recur can be defined by context. Often the unfamiliar can shed a great deal of light on the familiar. A masterpiece always speaks, if you listen.

Are there really masterpieces still being written? I'm not sure. There has to be a reason why audiences are so hostile to new music – more hostile than the normal time lag you've been speaking of.

The time lag has been getting longer, that's true. But that's because with modern communication times have been changing more quickly. Audiences, on the other hand, have continued to absorb new ideas about as quickly as before. Hence the gap. The encouraging thing is that new works are gradually being absorbed into the repertory and audiences are responding.

But what about the masterpieces?

We have them. There have always been lean times and fat times: times in which artists have been concerned with developing new tools and times in which they have been more concerned with using what they have. Both have produced good results.

What do we have now? It seems like a mess.

We have a situation something like Mozart's at the end of the eighteenth century. The death of Bach had brought the Baroque to a crashing halt and composers, realizing that no one could follow Bach, went tearing around looking for a new path. So they developed a new set of tools and waited for a real genius like Mozart to show them how to use them. In the nineteenth century Wagner was the dead end – only it took some composers, like Mahler and Strauss, longer to realize it. Eventually Stravinsky and Schoenberg and his school...


...brought us to our next plateau around World War II and the death of Webern. Since then we've been acquiring more tools and building towards another plateau, which is where I think we are now.

Fat times, these?

The last ten years have been especially exciting. We've arrived at what some call "a new Romanticism." Others call it "a new plurality." Anyway, we seem to have stopped experimenting for a while. Not that there's anything wrong with experimentation; but instead of searching for new sounds and techniques, composers now seem to be interested in putting it all together, re-exploring their links to the past, turning to the audience a little more.

You mean you're admitting that you were wrong? Atoning for all that atonal music?

Far from it. We're just at a fortunate point in history when composers seem to be taking stock and letting the audience catch up. We're thinking about the relevance and usefulness of our music now as opposed to some undefined posterity. We're shifting towards a synthesis in which the sounds we discovered are the primary emphasis rather than the process by which we derived them. The computer term "user friendly" comes to mind.

That's good news in principle; but, being a skeptic, I'll be listening to see whether you're right.

That's all I ask. Listening is everything.