Music as Search and Discovery

Sheldon Lichter

[February 2000. Originally appeared in La Folia 2:3.]

One of life’s little joys for many CD collectors (in my case, it’s “classical,” with some Latin American guitar music thrown in) is that of bringing home, from a record shop or from one’s post office box, a brand new disc glistening with promise under a cellophane wrapper. Sometimes it’s that rare and precious used and/or out-of-print CD that you were so lucky to find, so unexpectedly. As you determine its true and correct place on the CD shelves, and you proudly add it to the banks of its brother and sister CDs, perhaps you feel that rush of gratitude for and pride in the formidable musical treasure you possess in your collection. And so it goes, inexorably it seems, CD by CD (or cassette by cassette, or LP by LP).

There is something almost victorious (and surely wonderful) about having assembled a beloved collection of recorded music, after much time, effort, and of course money expended. And yet, every now and then, while perusing the shelves of CDs, I can’t help noting that many of them never get played any more, and that some of them, in fact, never did get played again after the first homecoming tryout. Whether or not this is important, I suppose, depends on whether you are collecting comprehensively, gathering a sampling of all the best stuff in the realm; or whether you are collecting, more sparingly, only that which you love or are fascinated actually to listen to. In my case, it was the latter: a modest collection of special favorites, to brighten and enhance my remaining years on Earth, and perhaps to share. And yet, despite the best of intentions to avoid the superfluous (CDs that just sit on the shelf in silence), like many another collector so motivated, I have ended up with a fairly large collection, much of which I never play. As the irony of this “misachievement” dawns, I can’t help wondering, “How did I get all this stuff?”

I will look at particular CDs which I never play, and ask two head-scratcher questions: Why did I buy that? and Why did I keep it until it was too late to return? All too often I have found that I bought an item only because once upon a time it computed in my mind that it would be a good idea to have it, and therefore I want it and should get it. In other words, a rationale devised for equating the desirable with the desired, thereby providing a pretext for indulging in the thrill of going out and buying, or ordering, a New Record.

As for keeping these self-bestowed gifts afterwards: often, the minute they actually were out of the mailbox and in my hands (or home from the record shop), and stripped of cellophane and those pesky tape closures, the level of my interest would plummet. But it seemed like such a bother not only to have to repackage them and take them to the post office to send back (assuming they were returnable), but even, in some cases, just to listen to them at all. Getting and having are two different things — a tough lesson for some of us humans. The hunting instinct is wild. The using or consuming instinct is domestic. As the longshoreman and astute author, Eric Hoffer, said a long time ago in The True Believer, “You can’t get enough of what you don’t really want.”

But within this sometimes rather compulsive psychological approach to collecting — as though this hallowed edifice of recordings, upon one’s future demise, might be entombed with one’s body for the future life in some Egyptian paradise (With such a collection, how could they turn one away?) — as I started to say, within the picture, there is the special case of collecting of what is known as, for want of a better description, contemporary classical music. To me, this is the Experimental Division of the edifice. Generally speaking, unless one has a certain appreciative genius, a knack for really paying attention, this “contemporary” music is frequently the stuff that puts one off upon first acquaintance — that is, if one can stand being subjected to it long enough to get acquainted.

Nevertheless, by practicing being assiduously acquisitive, rather than assiduously discriminating, one can amass a CD collection consisting of many items that, not only does one not listen to, but that one does not even like. A number of these shelved and silent members of the collection have the prestige of widespread acclaim as 20th Century Masterpieces. They are “desirable,” a priori. As acknowledged masterpieces, automatically they fairly demand to be represented in any respectable CD collection — never mind that they will go utterly unheard after their maiden voyage in the spin machine. As the music critics are wont to write: “No collection would be complete without…” Or, “No aficionado of contemporary music can do without…”

I think it must be said, some of the most interesting adventures in the Experimental Division, contemporary works, are found, not in the so-called masterpieces, but the lesser known, or very little known, contemporary works. These can hold much greater fascination for the music seeker than the “establishment” contemporary classics. Of course, such fare can, and often will, turn out to be clinkers. (If you are looking for a new, or reincarnated, Beethoven, forget it. He ain’t around, and he’s never gonna finish that Tenth Symphony. Or maybe he is back, like Mack, but busy just having fun.)

O tempora, o mores. All is revolution these days, and music can have no special case to plead in this lively and dizzy cultural milieu. Whether there is new “great” music in our midst I happily leave to future pundits to ascertain. But certainly there is “good” music. There is “intriguing” music. And there is even music that moves one heart and soul, even in quite original, non-retrospective idioms of expression. You just have to be persevering and lucky enough to find it, and notice it, with or without the aid of music critics or other music devotees and friends.

The hard lesson for me, personally, is that, properly pursued, the game of collecting music is about appreciation, not prestige (the bubble, reputation). And I mean an appreciation that is totally personal and authentic, independent of all authoritative opinion. Here is a real example in my experience to illustrate the point. One of the greatest musical names to grace the 20th century is that of Anton Webern, without a doubt, considering all I have read about him. Over a good many years, through LPs and through CDs, I have tried from time to time appreciatively to get into his music: orchestral, string quartet, vocal – all to no avail. I know (from reading) that he produced miracles of compositional courage and genius. But I don’t like what I hear, anyway, despite the miracles residing therein and all the contrapuntal finesse and whatnot that Webern’s is said to possess. I’ve listened to it over and over, in many a mood, and I just plain don’t like it. This is not about Webern, or how good his music is; it’s about me, the listener. And I submit it is about you, the listener, too. We’re not discussing decrees from on high.

There is, after all is said and done, no higher aesthetic appeal than such personal feelings, whether the subject be Palestrina or Roger Sessions. On a couple of other hands, for example, with the music of Morton Feldman, for me the jury is still out, although he is very comfortable to listen to; with the music of Elliott Carter, it’s thumbs up — yet it’s still a tough listen sometimes. And it took me a long time and a lot of listening to get to this modest level of appreciation of Carter.

The new, the strange, even the repellent do need to be given a chance — even risking that they will end up sitting on the shelf untouched forevermore. I think it’s the better part of wisdom to allow oneself to be guided — but not convinced — by conscionable critics and sincere others who have more experience than oneself. Sometimes it has taken many hearings for me finally to get into a piece of music, and like and admire it, including music much easier to “take” and less staggeringly complex than Carter’s. Something kind of subliminal or indiscernible will keep me coming back, a faint whisper in the mind’s ear that there is something fine here, if it would but reveal itself.

Conversely, if earnest repetition avails not in pursuit of appreciation, then finally enough has to be enough. Only time will tell. Everyone around me, who speak and write on contemporary music, may be buzzing about how wonderful it is to listen to Webern, about how radically original and “of pure essence” his music is; but either I have not to comment at all (for diplomacy’s sake), or, without judgment of the work’s merit, simply say that I don’t like it. And I may or may not be able to provide an explanation, in case someone asks.

Of course, I may think or you may think that a certain most highly acclaimed work is nothing but a piece of garbage. The important point, though, is not the verdict, but that I’ll be glad in any case to have given it a good try. It wasn’t a waste of time. If nothing else, my hearing faculties were exercised and expanded in sympathy and scope. And it may well be that because of such “workouts,” a new and uniquely strange piece of music might come along some day that I more easily and willingly am able to hear and ppreciate deeply, whether or not I end up liking it, instead of just glancing off its first weird impressions.

And finally, I have to remember that, although, speaking personally, there is very little in music that can even approach the stature of Bach, Mozart, and Beethoven — still, there is a lot of their music that I just don’t care for or find merely tedious. Some of it is considered their best, and is their most favored and “popular” stuff. Value has to be experienced to be had. But let me not hasten to exemplify the point by citing any particular such works, lest the dear reader’s derision be provoked and all rapport lost here at the end, like the cow that stepped in its own pail of milk.

SONGS OF INNOCENCE

It used to be such a wonderful experience to discover a new composer or a new composition I really liked. Brave New World that it was! The pleasure was especially keen when the musical language was original and different from everything else I knew. Sometimes it would come out of the blue, when the radio just happened to be on, in the background, and I just happened to catch what was playing. Or an interesting-looking album cover would leap out at me and prompt a purchase (just to buy something for myself), or a withdrawal from the raggle-taggle library bins. It was a bountiful given that there was music to be had in these ways. A societal institution that just happened to be here in this world in which I appeared, seemingly willy-nilly. I had no idea there was so much ego and egotism involved with and insinuated into these matters. It was just nice to find this stuff in the world, in my town. Songs of Innocence.

Mid-way, a discussion (for fun? for blood?) on what the finest recording of Bruckner’s Eighth Symphony is. (It could have been any number of other works.) Hear the voices. Watch the facial expressions and body language. The banter is laced with high seriousness, however sublimated, because it is a contest, a battle. And the cleverest man (or woman, I suppose) wins. The one who can think on his feet, who can adduce spurious evidence most cogently, and who has the intuitive illumination to gracefully make others feel invalidated. Whatever the scenario, the naive pleasures of music-listening have become tainted with self-righteousness. Further along, one discovers that there is music that the experts praise, the insightful ones, those who are in on the secrets of the mysteries musical – secrets from the unwashed millions who still think a good piece of classical music is Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture. Where I landed was at the discovery that there is music that I should like — even though I don’t. And, to be truthful, music I didn’t like at first (or second), but gradually came to appreciate to one degree or another. And there is contemporary music, which mostly neither dances nor sings, even in the mind. The babble over it all is endless, from astute to brainless. The fatuous praise, the bloodless throat-cutting. And the sense of diminished self-worth, because what the cognoscenti say is good, only bores one, or gets on one’s nerves. Or when what one likes is dismissed or ridiculed as being of little or no artistic merit. I hate it. It makes me think of Sartre’s No Exit.

Now our revels are ended. The journey is done. The CD shelves at home are well-stocked. And all the vitally unimportant importances of the aesthetic endeavor have sunk like water through sand. Now I am happy to report (especially to myself) that Webern is a closed issue. The recording by the incomparable Boulez containing Webern’s Symphony (one of the greatest compositions of the century, so they say) has been returned to Tower for credit. No more Webern experiments! No more John Cage experiments. No more Morton Feldman experiments. Goodbye forever, to Steve Reich, Terry Riley, and Philip Glass. Adiós Muchachos to Roger Sessions. And Milton Babbitt, don’t come near my door. (But I do like what I hear from Thomas Adès.) I don’t care how good any or all of you turn out to be, long after this mortal frame has turned to ashes. No matter how good the assessment turns out, none of you (I am pretty confident) will come within binocular range of Bach, Mozart, or Beethoven. And I am weary of the chase after any aesthetic good outside myself. If others find riches where I find only dust, then (seriously) good for them.