Friday, February 6, 2009

Playing the sniper

Despite the somewhat misleading URL of this blog, I try to stay away from areas of enormous controversy. I've railed against general trends in sacred choral music, but I try not to name particular composers - after all, it's quite possible that the works I heard were unrepresentative. But in this case, I feel obligated to be more specific, because the composer in question is now one of the most famous and revered figures in the choral scene. If I'm missing something, I'd love to be proven wrong; on the other hand, if the emperor has no clothes, this should be pointed out.

I speak, of course, of Eric Whitacre. I've sung works of his with choirs in the past, of course, but slighter pieces which I was always told were unrepresentative of his output. However, I'm now preparing this work for a concert, which is considered to be one of his better pieces:
"Sleep" has been widely performed wherever choirs exist, has been recorded numerous times, and has legions of fans. Why, then, do I think the piece is devoid of almost any redeeming characteristics?

The first problem is the text. The inside front cover of the sheet music tells the sad story: Whitacre was commissioned a setting of Frost's "Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening" for a concert, but was then denied permission to use the work by Frost's publishers. Is all lost? No, a poet friend steps in and agrees to write new words to fit the previously composed music. Presto, the music is saved! Except that the poem is pretty small beer. Compare the last quatrain of Frost's poem
The woods are lovely, dark and deep.
But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep.
to the newly written version:
What dreams may come, both dark and deep,
Of flying wings and soaring leap,
As I surrender unto sleep,
As I surrender unto sleep.
There are so many things wrong with this. The words "dark and deep" are there only to preserve key words from the earlier Frost setting, which is why they make absolutely no sense in context (dark and deep dreams?). The horrible tautology of "flying wings". The unbelievably awkward phrase "soaring leap" which, like "clouds of dream" earlier in the poem, reads like a machine translation - the poet is working so hard to fit the meter that the words no longer form idiomatic English. Finally, look at the opening quatrain:
The evening hangs beneath the moon,
A silver thread on darkened dune.
With closing eyes and resting head
I know that sleep is coming soon.
The same sort of problems: unbelievably awkward phraseology, and a dangling modifier to boot (it's the moon, a slim crescent against a dark background, that's like a "silver thread", not the evening). There are some nice ideas here, and the complete text telescopes sleep and death in a way which has potential - but the expression is simply too leaden for it to take off as a poem.

It's obvious that the task in question - to completely remake a poem to fit an existing choral piece, including some of the key vocabulary - was a Herculean one, and I wouldn't wish to judge the poet based on it. And this in itself wouldn't damn the work entirely; plenty of good composers, from Verdi to Ives, have set less-than-stellar texts. Unfortunately, I see little of value in the musical style either. Regular readers know how I feel about the "modern choral style", with its declamatory, homorhythmic style, unresolved suspensions, bassploitation, and naive exploration of vertical sonorities at the expense of all other musical elements. Whitacre gets points for avoiding the worst tricks of the style (the incidents of bassploitation all occur near the beginning of the piece, and it's not completely homophonic). Yet in his harmonic audacity, Whitacre goes one step further than most of his contemporaries, embracing a style where dissonance has absolutely no syntactical meaning whatsoever. Added notes can be inserted into any chord at any pitch level, approached by any interval, and never have to be resolved. Because the structure has no soundness or logic to it whatsoever, the result is a voyage of unending, merciless prettiness. To say that listening to the piece is like taking an aural bath is an understatement - it's the aural equivalent of sitting in the bathtub for eight hours, playing with the bubbles while eating ice cream straight out of the pail with a spoon.

Why, then, do so many people have such a high regard for Whitacre's music? Because his style, so sickeningly sweet, has a genuine attraction; he appeals to a palate unused to subtler tastes. Because he displays a genuine craft in doing what he does; the chords are carefully voiced, the climaxes well timed, and the text setting generally quite competent. But I think the broader problem is that people see music purely as entertainment, and so don't think to apply a reasonable moral or ethical standard to the music they sing. Music like Whitacre's is founded on instant gratification, with its plump, juicily voiced chords on the audible surface, ripe for the taking. No effort required - simply sit and bask. In my view, one of the greatest virtues of the great composers is their ability to force you to listen more carefully, focusing your attention on new details at each successive listening. This is not merely an aesthetic virtue, but a moral one - it teaches us to mistrust superficial appearance, for a pleasant-sounding piece can prove tiresome on multiple listenings, or, equally, reveal new levels of meaning. Works like "Sleep" have their place in the repertoire, but their current fetishization in the choral world reveals a skewed sense of proportion and a disturbing indifference to the moral implications of art.


diplomatizer said...

Sniper? This is a thousand-word barrage.

There are so many points I want to take issue with here, but I know better than to argue with you about aesthetics.

This is why I have so much trouble composing.

Osbert Parsley said...

"Sniper" is a Pierre Boulez reference: he starts an essay by saying "Why not play the sniper for a few moments?", hacks apart all his contemporaries, and finally concludes that all non-serial composers are "USELESS".

The difference is that, unlike Boulez, I can't score any political points by bashing other composers. And I'd love to be convinced I'm wrong, because that would mean I've been missing out on a wonderful musical experience. I wouldn't even go so far as to say that Whitacre is a bad composer, whatever that means - just that his music is drastically overperformed and overrated, and that it's not in the best of taste. (I should point out that my opinion of his band works, which I know better than his choral music, is essentially identical, even though the idiom is nothing alike.)

diplomatizer said...

I just think that some perspective is necessary; sure, Whitacre may be overperformed and overrated, but that's only within the choral and band spheres--which I doubt even exceeds 10% of the north american music-listening population (it's an arbitrary number, but you get the point). I'd argue that Whitacre's popularity has led to wider appreciation of choral music in general, especially among young people, simply because of its "appeal to palates unused to subtler tastes", and given the alternative--thousands of young people not interested in choral music--I can live with whatever musical or linguistic shortcomings there are. Is the point of making music to experience only the most ethically, morally and technically proper pieces, or to just enjoy what you're playing?

On a personal note: in my own experience, my introduction to Whitacre was an introduction to a harmonic language I'd never experienced before--and it was one I could understand. No, it's not the best stuff ever written, but somebody had to write in that style, and it probably motivated me to discover and appreciate other modern composers. And for that I feel a richer musician.

Osbert Parsley said...

I'm a little leery of arguments that say "Piece X isn't the greatest, but it could serve as a 'gateway drug' into better music". I would have less trouble buying this if Whitacre's music was performed only by student ensembles, but it's been taken up widely by professional chamber choirs, which would seem to suggest that the directors consider it to have genuine value as music.

The other thing is - how many people in high school band/choral programs make the independent leap from mediocre Gebrauchsmusik to the great works of the canon? If you're only exposed to mediocre "classical" music, why bother with anything else? It's like assigning The Da Vinci Code to a high school English class in the hopes that students will later find their own way to Shakespeare, Milton and Dickens. That's not the way it works - you assign the best you can find, knowing that the students' own unaided tastes are less developed.

Philip said...

I am much in agreement with this post in general, and I endorse the point that young people do not need to be condescended to, even if such condescension had the supposed benefit claimed for it, which it very rarely does. The young are too much underestimated with regard to these things, they are more than susceptible to that which awes, and a performance of, say, Tallis' Spem in Alium, preferably in the round, would be hugely more likely to intrigue them and arouse curiosity than Whitacre.

Anonymous said...

Your disdain for music that holds anything other than moral instruction as its highest aim makes it difficult to take the rest of your argument seriously.

Osbert Parsley said...

I hope I don't come across as holding a belief as crude as you're suggesting. Art that holds "moral instruction" as an explicit goal is invariably dreadful. Rather, I suggest that a constellation of moral effects inhere in any work of art - some of which are implicit in the work's construction and others of which attach to the work as it interacts with its social context. Whitacre's moral failing is basically a minor one - a certain voluptuousness and lack of rigour - but the immense popularity of this music expands its problems a thousandfold. Because it's so popular, any problems it has deserve a correspondingly high level of scrutiny. There are similar problems with Beethoven's Ninth, whose vague and somewhat egotistical message of humanist affirmation would be harmless enough in a political vacuum, but has historically allowed dozens of dictators and madmen to use it to their purposes.

Mac novice said...

It's always been easy to criticize something not to one's tastes with some variation on the phrase, "he appeals to a palate unused to subtler tastes." In essence you are saying, because you don't like his works, you have better taste and panache than those who do appreciate Whitacre. That's just a wee bit on the elitist side for my tastes. You then spend the majority of this hatchet-job decrying a style of music that Whitacre employs with precision (you yourself say, "he displays a genuine craft in doing what he does; the chords are carefully voiced, the climaxes well timed, and the text setting generally quite competent"), but the real problem with his music is that people like it. Huh? It is possible that people like it because they are able to see something deeper in it than you; perhaps they are "subtler" than you.
I can appreciate the list of "tricks" in the prior post you linked to, and I can certainly see many of those manifested in a number of lesser modern composers' works, but it is precisely because Whitacre's works have a forward motion to them (a "structure" if you will) that makes his music superior (and, therefore, well-liked by many respected performers (again, quoting you, "it's been taken up widely by professional chamber choirs, which would seem to suggest that the directors consider it to have genuine value as music")).
The beauty of Whitacre's music, which he himself has acknowledged, is not solely in the composition, but, to a greater extent than most composed music, in the interpretation. How one of his cluster chords is balanced can "force you to listen more carefully, focusing your attention on new details at each successive listening". There is much to discover with repeated exposure; something I trust you will encounter when rehearsing and performing this piece.
You seem to be suggesting that Whitacre's popularity is diminishing "real choral music" in the repertoire; that by programming "Sleep" (or "When David Heard" or "Leonardo Dreams of His Flying Machine") that an opportunity has been lost to program a more polyphonic, "by the rules" piece. Surely you can't believe there isn't a place for both, and Whitacre should be bumped off the stage.

Anonymous said...

Whitacre's rise has been very quick- probably too quick (could there be a Whitacre bubble, like the oil/commodity bubble- hehe?). What goes up must come down, and if he cannot evolve into any new styles at all, he will eventually become very passe. Also, he seems to have been enticed by the quick buck- now there are Whitacre festivals all over the globe where the tour companies shout "you can sing with Eric", conventions where he signs autographs for the adoring fans, etc.
Yes there is some value to some of his music- it is pretty and a personal voice. It's just now a very overexposed voice and despite the adoring 15-30 year old fan base, there is a growing backlash by many against the hype and overexposure.
I remember with amusement some 20 year old choir members at a state ACDA convention a couple years ago. As they listened to a a rival state university choir sing their beloved Whtiacre they just couldn't help taking exception to the rival choir's singing- and all it revolved upon was how well they tuned their 2nds, 9ths, 75ths, whatever. I like twenty year olds in some ways, but this just seemed so silly- to judge a choir by how well they sang seconds, not anything else!
If Whitacre were to to evolve I think it would be a wonderful thing for him, but the hype train for this one style of his has gained so much steam I doubt he can make it happen without losing his $$$ fan base!

INTPanentheist said...

Essentially, I agree with everything Mac Novice said. While I can understand taking music one dislikes, that may be popular, and immediately judging it as inferior based on its popularity, it seems too easy to dismiss something offhand simply because of a combination of your dislike and others' praise. Rather than worrying about others liking something you don't like, and thumbing your nose at their tastes, I don't see why it isn't possible to simply determine that you appreciate a different sound and move on - especially since you recognize the skill he demonstrates.

It's what I do with a great deal of jazz. I don't like jazz. A lot of people that I know do (as a musician, I'm going to have more friends who dig stuff that is less mainstream, like real jazz). I don't like the way most of it sounds, and I think that a great deal of it fits into the modern ideal of random for the sake of random without any consideration for how pleasing something is to the ear - and, believe it or not, beauty is actually a goal here, or should be. However, rather than writing posts on the lamentable popularity of such a silly musical form, I don't really worry about it, because different strokes and all that.

However, in all sincerity, I'm not criticizing you for taking the time to write this, and you make some worthwhile points (and it's your blog to say what you will on anyway). It just seems like a waste of energy to me, is all.

Then again, I like Whitacre, and I'm twenty-five, so, I mean, take that as you will.

Osbert Parsley said...

Thanks to Mac novice, Anonymous II and INTPanentheist for your thoughtful comments. If I were writing this post again, I would probably tweak the language somewhat - Mac novice rightly comments that some of my comments smack of condescension. However, I would not change the gist of this post. If anything, the experience of finishing rehearsals on "Sleep" and performing it has reduced my opinion of Whitacre's technical skill.

Music exists in time; a decision to perform a work on a concert and spend rehearsal time learning it necessarily implies rejecting other options. If that's so, it's incumbent upon us to have standards about which works we offer for performance and which we don't. By trying to tease out what it is that distresses me so much about Whitacre's music, I hope to get closer to such a usable set of standards. As I've said before, however, I would love to be proven wrong - if I'm missing out on something wonderful, I want to know what that is. Unfortunately, my experience with "Sleep" only confirmed my previous impression - my sense of sloppiness, amateurism and poor taste increased substantially as we continued learning the work.

Anonymous said...

I was surprised that no one pointed out some of the variety in Whitacre's style. He certainly has a more open-ended approach than some other popular choral composers. It is a step in a new direction when he brings in something akin to Monteverdi or Gesualdo in "Leonardo Dreams," or when he channels John Adams's Harmonium in the finale of that piece. That, to me, was actually a valuable innovation (not a radical new idea, but at least a clever one)--taking some of the techniques that Adams developed for the orchestra (I won't call it minimalism) and applying them to an unaccompanied choir. "When David Heard" asks a lot of the audience and the performers; it's quite a long piece, and the emotional climax arrives only very slowly. It's style owes a lot to Arvo Paert. I'm not suggesting that Whitacre is a profoundly original composer, but I do respect the fact that he does not always pick away at the same exact vein where he struck it rich, such as in "Water Music." (I guess I should have used the metaphor of "drawing from the same well" instead of digging at the same vein for that piece :) ) I think most would agree that "Sleep" is not his best piece.

Anonymous said...

OOps, I always do that, call it "Water Music." I meant "Water Night" off course. I know he's not Handel.

N O A H said...

I feel that if a piece is beautiful to listen to, that is the most important thing. I truly think that the chords that Eric Whitcare produces in moments of his pieces are some of the most beautiful in all of music.

Anonymous said...

I think it's fun and important to play the sniper from time to time. Too much caution or balanced praise blunts the work of criticism. So thank you, Osbert or whoever you are, for writing this. For what it's worth, I agree completely!