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May 22, 2005



Splendid post.


A beautiful post. I wanted to add my two cents worth here as a musician. I enjoy all kinds of music and I have studied my whole life the history and evolution of music (should I say evolution?). I appreciate the twelve tone system as well as some of John Cage’s more popular songs (like sitting down at the piano opening it and closing it after a set period of time. Never playing it!), but the most important thing about music and all of its forms is that it inspires.

I think that we sometimes forget that there are far more radical musicians that existed before the twentieth century. Gesualdo, a prince in late renaissance Italy, was a musician of madrigals and had no regard of the tonality accepted in his day. He was more interested in expanding the possibilities of sound for the voice. I could mention more but it is not necessary because the past 150 years gives us many examples as stated by Tanuki. My feeling is that these evolutions are a "Rite of Spring" for composers (sorry about the joke). We go through these steps simply to find a voice. Wagner, Mahler, Stravinsky, Debussy or any number of modern composers went through many phases before we learned to accept them. Some never are widely accepted (Schoenberg, Webern, Berg) but they are important to the evolution.

I would like to give you a couple of links to a great musicologist, Nicolas Slonimsky, who was a great conductor, teacher, pianist, comedian as well as a writer who I had the privileged to study with for a year when in college. I remember many things from him but one point I have kept. (I paraphrase here) he said that there is no music that is pure, there is no music that is true and there is no music that is right. There is just sound that we hear that touches our heart and mind. If we can identify and share that sound with those who enjoy what we hear we have popular music. All the rest is personal music. He was a great man who knew personally the great modern composers and worked hard to introduce these great musicians to many in the world but also had a great sense of humor that would make musicology fun and I always remember his influence.



Another thing I remember is what the great Duke Ellington once said when asked what kind of music did he like to listen to other than his and he said “Well, I like good music. It doesn’t matter what others call it. If I like it must be good.”If you like it must be good so enjoy what you like!


Is it some kind of disease that the right has where they have to mention "leftists" in ever article they write. Geez! They could be writing about fishing and some how blame the left for their inability to catch anything, even though this would be doubly absurd given the fact that if not for the left fighting for the environment there would probably be no place for the right to even fish. Anyway, let's examine Tanuki's recurrent tendency to do this very thing.
He begins with his opinion regarding atonal music. This is fine. No problem. Some appreciate it, some do not. Personally, much of it I don't really sit around listening to, but at times my ability to appreciate this type, or many other types for that matter, is greater than at others. I can appreciate the innovations of Harry Partch and John Cage(some) better than..well...quite a few others. Anyway, back to Tanuki's tendencies. Let's see what he says:

"I swear to God"

You shouldn't be doing this.KB

"the same analogy has come to mind while trying to listen to Schoenberg or his spawn--and they are legion."

Is Tanuki 'really' that familiar with Schoenberg? Hmmm....I wonder.KB

"I don't know what Hoffman's politics are, but I've always suspected that the same vanity that infects leftists"

Okay, now we're getting somewhere. The old left's "vanity" argument. Is there some sort of proof for this accusation, or is this just more of that rightist babble which spreads like a disease through crowds who don't agree because they don't even know what they're talking about? The latter I believe.KB

"motivates fine artistes and their wannabes to fancy themselves superior to the common lot in cleaving to political or musical tastes inimical to the human condition."

What does creativity in the arts have to do with basic ideas such as equality being a good, normal, human sentiment? Perhaps, the artists in their creativity are able to break through the bonds of the mind which seem to keep those more close-minded people from making any advances. At least this is what most of history would indicate. And this is why most artists are liberal and of the left. Of course this doesn't mean that all of their art is good, but it is at least an attempt for them to find their own voice, unlike those of the right who are willing to use the voice of whatever rightwing demagogue which happens to be popular this month.KB

"Hey, I used to do it to."

Don't tell me he's going to do the old "I used to be a lost liberal, but then I say the light an converted to the right" line. Personally, I've never met, or read for that matter, one person who has made this transition. I've read a few folks who have dishonestly claim to have. But it becomes apparent within a matter of 20 seconds, max, that they have never been of the left. It's as if I were to brag about having used have been in the NBA, and then I started practicing with some professional team. They'd probably notice within about 20 seconds that I was full of shit. THe analogy is basically the same, except that my ability to play ball is probably better than the rights attempt to fib about their conversion.KB

"I thought that listening to music I hated would instantly propel me to the status of intellectual and convince others that I may be a genius without me having to lift a creative or intellectual finger."

Why would you think that? Just because a few folks find elaborate philosophical theories to explain the depth of the noise they make doesn't make them intellectual, nor would your ability to understand their descriptions. Rather than trying to prove whether their noise is right or wrong, as is probably impossible with regards to any of the arts, why not just listen to the rules they've made, as there are not really any rules anyway, and hear it for what it is without any judgments? I know it's difficult not to judge, and this is especially true for the right(I guess they missed Sunday school the day which judging others was discussed), but with practice it does become easier.KB

"After all, geniuses are ahead of their times, misunderstood or even reviled by the ignorant, pitchfork waving peasants."

This is often true, but more times than not the artists WERE the "pitchfork waving peasants". This is why they were able to do paintings slamming the rich and turn around and sell them to the rich without the rich even being aware that they were being made fun of. So, your notion that the intellectual class is made up of the aristocracy is not quite accurate, though there is definitely an element that do act this way. These are the same initellectuals that Chomsky targets most often. The ones who 'think' they're the smart ones, self-designated, of course.KB

"Or are they?"


"Again, like political leftists, those who casually trash tonal music seem to take for granted the rather incredible virtues of the system that they condemn."

Leftists "trash tonal music"? That's odd given the fact that most tonal musicians are of the left. This is the same lame logic that Tanuki uses to say that the left wants bigger government, when, in fact, they don't. And he does this is all the while ignoring how much the right wants more government, especially the Reaganites who were probably the biggest statist reactionaries in U.S. history, and is easy to prove.KB

"Chomsky is said to include throw away lines such as 'The United States is the freest country in the world,""

Why would you believe he this is a "throw-away line"? He absolutely believes this and it's easy to tell by reading most anything he's ever written. He says it all the time, and talks about what makes it so. Of course, one must know at least a little about him in order to be aware of this, but as we all know Tanuki's familiarity with Chomsky is about as thorough as his knowledge about atonal music, perhaps less.KB

"before he goes on to tell us that our freedom is a sham and that we are all dupes of the military industrial complex."

He's never said this once. Where are you getting your information? I know Japanese people who would laugh at such absurd assertions. He's never said that "our freedom is a sham". He has also never said that " we are all dupes of the military industrial complex". I think Tanuki's atonal thinking is quite in tact. I'm not sure why he would have so much trouble with atonal music. His remarks regarding Chomsky are about as "tonal".KB

"Similarly, Devotees of 'experimental music' claim that the old stuff is OK, but they yearn to breathe free."

Yeah, so what's wrong with that? Slavery was old and outdated and the left moved things ahead, against the usual tendencies of the right to keep things where they are, or to push them back. You don't like fresh air?KB

"Why should they be restrained by the mold of the old?"

I agree.KB

"One, a splendid, intelligent, and sensitive kid whom I teach, insists that he's into 'experimental music,' but doesn't know what a C major chord is."

So, in other words, he hasn't been spoiled to the usual rules folks think they must know in order to play 'real music'. So?KB

"I wanted to tell him, son, it is a gift of the angels."

Why would you think this? There are many kinds of music all over the world that could give a shit less about a C major chord, if they even have one in their scale. This sounds like the those who think everything would just be better if they did things like ME.KB

"Or the product of generations of roaming through the wilderness."

As this is where music comes from, it's probably a safe bet.KB

"Indeed, the tonal system is more than merely one musical language among many, all equally valid, just as science is not simply a more codified and repressive form of witch-doctoring. It is deeply related to the human condition."

Here goes. What whitey has invented is better than everything invented by everyone else throughout history. I can just feel God pulling whitey closer to him right now. The music. The science. Well....just about everything. Medicine is one thing. It exists in the physical world and can be measured scientifically. Music cannot. It is an art. You are cpmaring apples and oranges.KB

"But just as intrinsic to human nature as tonal music is, so is status anxiety."

Talk about an inability to comprehend projection. Guess what? There are actually people out there who listen to all sorts of music which do not use the "tonal" chords which you seem to believe make up the music of the spheres. Take Vietnamese music. I'm sure many folks would hear there music and consider it a horrendeous noise. However, they find it beautiful. Trying to apply ones standards onto others is just another syptom of the colonialist, imperialist, totalitarian, mindset.KB


KB's Second Movement in A(narchist) Minor

Tanuki said:
"But just as intrinsic to human nature as tonal music is, so is status anxiety."

Tonal music isn't intrinsic to human nature. A bird is born and sings quite naturally as this is built into their hardwiring. Music isn't built in at all. It's invented.KB

"Those who listen to dissonance and hear in it the siren song of their own egos will always be with us."

So, those who hear beauty in music which YOU think isn't beautiful are the one's with the oversized ego? I would think those who think they have some sort of hotline to the music gods are the ones with the large egos. But, you're are right. THEY will probably always be with us.KB

"I suppose there are even more who have listened to truly good music for the same reason--to be thought of as 'cultured' and 'intelligent.'"

Once again, the authority claims he has knowledge of what "truly good music" is. And for the most part, more people who listen to what you consider to be truly good music are those who think of themselves as more intelligent. Rarely see too many blue collar people attending classical concerts, though there are a few who want to hang out with the more "sophisticated" and bigger ego crowd.KB

"I know an amateur singer who rejects Beethoven and all his works--and insists others do the same--because, I suspect, he feels that too many automatically confer the 'genius' status to him."

Well, this alone would be a silly reason. And rather than suspecting why he thinks this why don't you ask him. Perhaps he has a good reason.KB

"He has a point, and not all of Beethoven is de facto sublime, but common human jealousy is at work here."

What does jealousy have to do with anything? There are musicians all over the place FAR greater than many, if not most, of those who have made it big. And while there could be some understandable resentment present, it doesn't have to be.KB

"If the C major chord and all its permutation are really gifts of the angels"

I don't recall hearing anyone assert this idea other than a few folks. Are you assuming it to be fact?KB

"perhaps their truest and most valuable function is to lift us out of our jealousy and drive to compete into something far, far, far larger than ourselves."

I'm not following. The angels are going to lift us out of our jealousy using the heaven sent C chord so that people can compete, via the freemarket no doubt, and become larger, just as one becomes richer via freemarket? Is this what you're saying? Your logic sems atonal.KB

"It is almost impossible for most of us to compose or perform--or even to listen to--music without our egos getting into the act."

Really? I've never heard this before. When I listen to music I simply listen to the notes and they make me feel a certain way. If I find the music to be sexy or romantic, and I'm in the mood for love, and I think I may be able to do something about it, then maybe my ego will be involved for a little while, but other than this I'd say that music helps people to escape the confines of their egos. Perhaps, this is the thing greater than ourselves which you mentioned earlier.KB

"But then again, when we truly find ourselves in love with music, isn't it when we have forgotten ourselves entirely?"

PING PONG!!!! I agree 100%.KB


I think atonal music does what tonal music aims to do. It may not have the same effect but it's an attempt to "compete into something far, far larger than ourselves".
I think we don't know how to react to something when certain expectations aren't met...
Atonal music is not as bad as a chef suggesting to swallow a tablespoon of salt...it'll take some time for anyone to get used to listening anything out of the ordinary.


Music is an art that goes through evolutions. Claude Debussy stated that "Musical sounds are a musician’s palette. We take the ever growing variations of sound color and rhythm variation and paint a picture that appeals to some and infuriates others." Atonal music is simply another palette that represents what people like or don’t like. I like the complexity and form of atonality but that doesn’t mean that I would dismiss the music of the past as not valid. They are all connecting to a great palette of sound that grows in time. We choose what we like and don’t like. I would add that we should choose what we like but respect where it came from.


As a Westerner, I think the Tanuki was specifically using The West’s major /minor system as an example of a structurally coherent system of music that happens to produce what most of the world has come to view as pleasing to some degree. (Correct me if I’m wrong Tanuki-san).

His criticisms seemed to be specifically directed at deliberate attempts to produce musical disorder or - paradoxically -- structured chaos (i.e. Schoenberg).

I know the Tanuki and know his tastes in music to be wide and varied. Indian raga music is certainly not based on The West’s major /minor system but it’s unmistakably constructed to be pleasing to the ear and by no means random or purely discordant. There is a clear plan and it’s not intended to mimic cats mating. Of course, some music may take some time before one can fully appreciate it (to my knowledge only cats come to fully appreciate the sound of cats mating – no pun intended).

We could mangle a given life forms DNA into random disorder and say we were being creative (who are we to question chaos or deformity?). Most would agree that nature or god (or something) has stumbled on to something “harmonious” and proper when a particular structural plan produces a rose. There are likely few, if any, cultures that shudder at the “ugliness” of a butterfly’s wings or a grove of cherry blossoms (definitely, not even vaguely comparable to atonal music). There's certainly a place for courser artistic expression and occasionally a really ugly piece offers some novelty to ponder but...I think I'm trying to say, "I think atonal music sucks," yeah, that's it!

Those of us who don’t like Schoenberg (I’m, of course, not referring to some of his tonal works), or other “experimental” assaults upon the human ear, have a reasonable case to make and the Tanuki has done so eloquently.

An excellent post in honor of excellent music (among the world’s varied styles), constructed to please the human spirit – rather than assault it.


I'm delighted to have had such thought-provoking comments, most from people's whose knowledge of music far exceeds my own. Although the defenses of the atonal system, which I (perhaps wrongly) see as the rejection of melody, have not entirely convinced me.

Like C, I do believe that melodic lines are as universal and inherent to the human condition as spoken language. Comparisons are odious, but I can't help thinking that melody is like speech--communicating certain ideas through recognizable patterns. Certain modes may be prevalent in certain cultures, like certain grammatical forms or phonemes are prevalent in certain languages, yet the system of communication through words can be found anywhere.

If I concocted a system of communication that relied on everything but words--oohs and ahhs, grunts, shrieks, clicks, whistles, etc., I probably could communicate an awful lot. I would be 'freeing' myself and those who chose to imitate me from the prison of language. Actually, certain poets have tried this in various ways--experiments in divorcing words from their meanings. But, could I communicate nearly as much as through actual language? Wouldn't it be better to combine my incoherent but expressive vocalizations WITH recognizable words?

It seems to me that those who ban melodic lines are not offering new pallettes. They're just hacking off a sizable portion of the one we already have and over-emphasizing certain elements of the parts they keep. Intellectually interesting, but to me, ultimately unsatisfying. The ideas behind some of John Cage's compositions make sense to me as excellent poetic concepts. Yet without those ideas, they're just so much noise. To me.

Also, I suspect that those who understand music theory far better than I do can experience aesthetic pleasure in the novelty of avante-garde compositional techniques, exciting mainly in the context of music history. Fine. I'm not denying there's some value to that.

But life is short. I want it all, baby, or as much as I can get. Give me meaning with a capital M. In language, that means words and the amazing repercussions they create as their sounds and nuances bounce off of each other. In music, that means melody. I swear to God, melodies talk to me, make images in my head, tell a story. I forget which Brandenburg Concerto it was whose melancholy strains always conjured up the image in my mind of a middle aged woman who goes out to the parking lot of her daughter's wedding reception at dusk during late spring to get a camera out of the back seat of her car. She pauses and looks at the sun in the clouds, reflecting on the passing of time. Weird, but true.

Schoenburg just puts me in a crappy mood.

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