Friday, July 9, 2010

In Defense of Difficulty--From Metcalf to Messiaen

I’m listening to the music of John Metcalf as I write, and as I often do.  No matter the weather, no matter the difficulty or ease of the day, Metcalf’s music is a gift:  complementing a day that goes well or providing respite on a day that requires it.

As I listen, I think back on Bill Black’s post, “In Defense of Difficulty—The Music Edition.”  While I believe I understand the theory, the theory somehow doesn’t fit my experience of music—or Metcalf’s music, at least.  Here’s the nugget of the theory:
But real pleasure from music requires surprise, that is, what strikes us as pretty—symmetrical chord structures and melodies, for instance—are really designed to lull us into the safety of predictability before we encounter some startling dissonance, and in the unsettling back and forth between harmony and dissonance, we derive pleasure.
The theory does make sense to me.  I’ve often had the experience, particularly with popular music of various stripes, of enjoying the first listen, then quickly getting bored upon repeats:  utter predictability attaches, with no escape.  On the other hand, there is some music that, while I might hear it in concert and be fascinated, the message that precedes me to my stereo is “don’t try this at home.”  I think, for example, of Schnittke, whose music is on the CD rack in roughly the same position to which, on the bookshelf, I’ve consigned Finnegans Wake, or Helmut Lachenmann, whose music I haven’t even had the courage to buy.

But then again, I’ve grown to enjoy listening to Shostakovich, and his music definitely offers up “the unsettling back and forth between harmony and dissonance.”  Which brings me, via John Metcalf, as it happens, to Olivier Messiaen.

As is the case with many books in my house, for a long time I’ve had a CD of Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time that I've not got around to playing.  So long, in fact, I’d forgotten entirely that I had it—though, apparently, a vague image of the CD hung somewhere in the back of my mind.

But lately, as I’ve been listening to every scrap of Metcalf’s music I can lay my hands on, and wanting to know more, I turned to his program notes and found this, about his piece Not the Stillness:
Writing a new work for the same combination of instruments as Messiaen's 'Quatuor pour la Fin du Temps' was a demanding challenge. There are a relatively few pieces for this combination of instruments and if it were frequently performed it could well be in the context of a programme including the Messiaen, a work that by the circumstances surrounding its creation and, indeed, by its very nature, is very particular.
The long-buried image of the Messiaen CD languishing on a shelf floated forward.  I found the CD and plucked it out.  As with other difficult endeavors (like trying to get through Ulysses), a car trip provided me with undivided time to listen.

The opening notes, at least, were definitely of the ilk “don’t try this at home.”  The subsequent movements were similarly difficult, until the fifth, when the cello and piano took over and traces of melody appeared.

Metcalf says, of Not the Stillness:  “I have tried to recreate, in my own terms, the same rapt stillness of the slow sections of the 'Quatuor pour la Fin du Temps'.”  This I understood.  Metcalf is a master of “rapt stillness” through sound.  (I promise you, if your blood pressure is rising, he will bring it down.)  And I recognized what he was talking about in the fifth movement of the Messiaen—what a pleasure to arrive at that movement after such auditory travails.

In his post, Bill recounts a story about the first and second performances of Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring:
What’s famous about the debut is that when well-healed Parisians heard the opening discordant tones they flew into a frenzy.  Literally, a riot ensued.
The experience of listeners at the second performance was quite different:
But this time, instead of responding to the dissonance, the audience heard the Romantic melodies built under the dissonance, and instead of chasing Stravinsky out of town, the audience carried him on their shoulders.  A hero was born.
Bill explains the difference this way:
The dissonance of The Rite of Spring made it impossible for the first audience to hear anything else, and so their brains received a signal to freak out.  For the second audience, just the foreknowledge that they were going to hear dissonance prepared their brains to cut through the overload and hear the patterns beneath it.
I kept at the Messiaen with that in mind.  Between listenings, I learned the reason for the choice of instruments.  He’d written the piece in 1941, while an inmate in a German POW camp, and his choice was determined by what was at hand:  he found among the prisoners a clarinetist, a violinist, and a cellist, to which he added the piano to make up the quartet.

I began to understand—“to cut through the overload”—and hear how the music developed from segment to segment to create a comprehensible whole.  I rode through the dissonance, anticipating the moment when he would let me rest in the “rapt stillness” of those two slow movements, the fifth and the eighth.

But none of this helped me understand why Metcalf's music bears so many repeated listenings without a trace of boredom setting in.  It's not that his music contains no dissonance, but rather that moving from "startling dissonance" to harmony doesn't resonate with me as the basis for its appeal.

I went back to Jonah Lehrer and Alex Rehding, a Professor of Music at Harvard, as I had in response to Bill’s post.  Rehding wrote:
If we derive pleasure from anticipating potential connections - and especially being surprised by thwarted expectations - then it becomes difficult to explain why we would want to listen to a piece more than once:  the novelty factor wears off, the uncertainty factor becomes less pronounced.  In principle, the piece should get less interesting each time we hear it.  Experience, however, shows that this is not the case: we greatly enjoy re-hearing familiar pieces.
Jonah Lehrer, who wrote the post in which Rehding is quoted, goes on to say,
Why are we still listening to Bach's fugues, or Beethoven's symphonies, or Kind of Blue?  What is it about these particular soundwaves that allows them to evade the corticofugal boredom?  I'd suggest that their place in the canon is inseparable from their ambiguity - their ability to encourage a multiplicity of interpretations - so that new listens reveal new elements to listen for.  In other words, we are continually surprised by their sounds, by the capacity of the music to subvert our expectations.  Frank Kermode famously argued that literature worked the same way:  What makes a novel or poem immortal is its complex indeterminacy, the way every reader discovers in the same words a different story.  The same book manages to inspire two completely different conclusions.  But there is no right interpretation.  If there were - if there was only one way to read Hamlet - then the words would be far less interesting.  The art that endures is the art that never loses its capacity to surprise.
What Lehrer says argues for thinking of dissonance as a means, but not the only means, toward the end of “art that never loses its capacity to surprise.”

With the Messiaen, repeated listening afforded me the ability to get past the shock of dissonance and begin to make meaning of the piece.  With Metcalf, I listen to a piece for the first time, like Mapping Wales or the Cello Symphony, with simple pleasure.  When I listen again, though, I discover something new, something I hadn’t heard before.  Repeated listenings reward me with repeated discoveries, in a so far inexhaustible supply.

Dr. Michael Tamte-Horan, the Artistic Director and Conductor of Cantatica, a progressive musical organization located in Pennsylvania's Lehigh Valley, said this of Metcalf’s Mapping Wales:  “The music of John is indeed beautiful, especially, ‘Mapping Wales’.  It is also deceptively difficult to play!”

Tamte-Horan’s statement offers me a clue:  The difficulty in Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time comes at us frontally, full bore.  As listeners, we must grapple with it to make sense of what we hear.  In contrast, Metcalf welcomes us in to listen, then, subtly, enriches what we hear and understand.

I invite you to listen to the music of Metcalf, Messiaen, and, if you are feeling particularly venturesome, Schnittke and Lachenmann, and tell us what you hear.

John Metcalf:  Endless Song (Endless Song is the theme for Mapping Wales)

Olivier Messiaen:  I. Liturgy de Cristal, Quatuor pour la Fin du Temps

Schnittke:  Variations on a Chord

Helmet Lachenmann:  Guero

Olivier Messiaen:  V. Louange à l'Eternité de Jésus, Quatuor pour la Fin du Temps

Postscript:  On the subject of neuroscience and the arts, the Pages & Places Book Festival, of which Bill Black is Co-Director, will take place October 2, 2010, in Scranton, Pennsylvania.  The Festival includes what promise to be many fascinating panel discussions, one of which is:  "The Brain & Culture:  How Advances in Neuroscience Are Changing the Way We Imagine Ourselves."


  1. RA - Thank you again for an interesting piece. Your posts always give me something to ponder. This essay was so well-written - you deserve a much wider audience for your work.

    I will be listening to music, all music, with your thoughts in mind.

  2. The sound quality on my laptop surely does not do justice to this music. Despite, that, though I enjoyed the Metcalf piece immensely. It made me think of church bells.
    The clip of Messiaen's music is so moving - it sounds like a clock inexorably ticking the countdown to the end of time.
    Helmut Lachenmann's piece struck me as odd when I watched the video -- when I closed my eyes I could hear a lot more in it.
    Thanks, RA, for an entertaining post. I have found myself going back to Metcalf's piece again and again.

  3. WOS and Carol-Ann: Thank you for your comments, as always. It was fascinating to write this piece, and I'm glad it made for an interesting read as well. C-A, I am indeed pleased that you enjoyed the Metcalf. (There is, by the way, lots of lovely Metcalf music available as MP3s, if you're of a mind to sample more.) Your description of the Messian is marvelous--and now I must go back and listen to Lachenmann with my eyes closed, too . . .


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