Letter to the Editor

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Every so often I read an article in one of the local or national newspapers that motivates me to respond with a letter to the newspaper’s editor. A number of these letters in the past have gone to local newspapers responding to articles about the Rochester Philharmonc Orchestra. In my capacity as a past member of the orchestra’s Board of Directors for 8-years and as a present member of the orchestra’s Honorary Board, and after 3-decades as a musician performing in the orchestra and serving on virtually every committee, I occasionally have the chutzpah to think that I might have some insights that could further illuminate the issues at hand.

But on Saturday June 26 the article I read was in a national newspaper and it was not about the Rochester Philharmonc. It was in the “Weekend Journal” section of the “Wall Street Journal” in the regular “Sightings” column written by Terry Teachout, the WSJ drama critic. The article was titled, “Too Complicated for Words,” and the topic in essence was, “Are certain kinds of modern art too complex for anybody to understand?” The article can be found online at: http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052748704911704575327163342009080.html

In Teachout’s article there are refernces to Pierre Boulez and Elliot Carter. There is also a reference to a paper by composer Fred Lerdahl titled, “Cognitive Constraints on Compositional Systems” which was published in the “Contemporary Music Review” (1992, Vol.6, Part II, pp.97-121). This treatise can also be found online at:


I once met Fred Lerdahl and performed one of his works at the Marlboro Music Fastival back in the early 1970s, and this connection probably fed into my desire to respond to the Teachout article.

Here is my Letter to the Editor.

June 30, 2010 To: wsj.ltrs@wsj.com

In response to the article “Too Complicated for Words” (Wall Street Journal, June 26-27, 2010), and after looking at Mr. Lerdahl’s paper, as advised in the article, I think a clearer distinction needs to be made about the ways in which music can be perceived and understood. Mr. Teachout’s article and Mr. Lerdahl’s paper both make a very compelling case that there is a limit to the ability of most listeners to perceive and understand complex musical structures, but such is the case only if Mr. Teachout’s argument is limited to cognitive understanding – understanding through a process of thought, whether rational thought or even of irrational thought.

What was not addressed in the article was the possibility of gaining an understanding in other ways. It is certainly possible to understand any music (and any art), including the most structurally complex music, in ways that do not involve linear reason or thought. To illustrate, take Mr. Teachout’s example of the painting, “Autumn Rhythm.” Yes, it can be experienced in a single glance, but in that single glance the viewer is in all probability forming an intuitive impression rather than a reasoned analysis of the painting’s structure. In our commercial culture, we are flooded with images daily, so much so that we have become accustomed to rapidly draw an “understanding” of the meaning of an image, even after only a few seconds of exposure.

There can be an analogous intuitive understanding of music, regardless of the music’s structural complexity. For a listener to do this, it helps to have had some experience in the technique of listening – an experience that is ever-increasingly difficult to obtain, for a number of reasons. For one thing, our culture is a “doing” culture, in which listening is considered “not-doing” and is rarely conceptualized as an action. And unfortunately, our music education systems have for at least 40-years focused mainly on performance (doing) rather than on listening.

Good listening is active, not passive. It involves sometimes letting go of thought processes and allowing intuitive (or emotional) impressions to emerge from the subconscious, just as happens when a painting is viewed briefly. However, there is little in our culture and education system to reinforce good listening. The fact that your article makes no reference to this other way of understanding music is a good indication of the seriousness of the problem that art music is facing.

The art-music world has by now moved out of the modernist era, in which abstraction and complexity of form and structure were highly valued. It is understandable that composers, scholars and music critics continue to consider the structure of a musical composition to be its most important (if not its ONLY important) aspect. But such a limited perspective is not necessarily relevant to postmodern listeners, who exist in a world of continual massive information inflow and are forced to make responses based on impressions, and not on analytical study.

As for James Joyce’s “Ulysses” the concept of using intuition to derive meaning can also apply. Granted that such meaning may be entirely personal, but that is EXACTLY the point. “Ulysses” does not have to be read in a linear fashion – sequentially, from the first word on page one to last word in the book. It can also be read non-sequentially in small bits – starting anywhere on any page, continuing for as long as the reader likes, and stopping whenever the reader chooses. The reader may then form a personal impression and if the impulse occurs again at some later time, repeat the process (or not). The impression is significant for the reader, even if only a part of the book is ever read.

The problem addressed in Mr. Teachout’s article is not merely that artists and writers have created forms and structures that are too complex for the general public to understand, but also that our culture has not helped the general public to see other ways of understanding the works – to see other possibilities.


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Greg Amann
14 years ago

Well said. I have lots of experience with this in the visual art world too. When joking around with friends I refer to a “pain threshold”. Why would someone who hates his job, married the wrong person and has a dog that eats the couch pillows want to spend the time actively listening (or viewing)? He just wants to relax, he wants the pain to go away (not to be too dramatic). He likes pop music, he might get to Rush’s YYZ and there is NO way he’s getting to Reich. And that’s OK. There is a small group of… Read more »

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