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Almost Too Beautiful (2003) (cnvill.net)
95 points by quesebifurcan 1695 days ago | hide | past | web | 47 comments | favorite

I'm always fascinated by the response of everyday people to music like this. I'm a former professional musician — my degree was in viola performance, and I freelanced for a number of years before I decided paying the rent was important — and my perspective on contemporary music has changed since I ceased actively performing. I think the largest change is that I've become less concerned with interesting music, and more concerned with beauty; in this, I think I've become more like a regular audience member, who is less concerned with novelty and innovation and more concerned with whether listening to the piece is an enjoyable experience.

I think Feldman straddles that boundary with remarkable balance. I haven't listened to his second quartet, but I've listened with intensity to his first (only an 1/½ hour work), and it's effective on both levels. It is non-traditional in its organization and its sonorities, but it has a straightforward structure that is simple enough for a lay listener to at least partly grasp in a single hearing, allowing them to appreciate it as an object of beauty. At the same time, its form and content are original enough to pique a more demanding student's interest. From the OP's description, it sounds like the second quartet is similar.

Feldman strikes me as a composer who has partly avoided and partly succumbed to the trap — all too common, as I see it — of deciding that the state of constant revolution that music has been in since about 1885 means that they can do anything they please and write music according to their own inscrutable (and often mechanical) system, shattering so many expectations so their music defies evaluation and nobody can tell them it isn't good. (The stories I could tell about some "composers" and their methods…) I blame the vast difference between the expectations of academia, which is the main supporter of contemporary composers, and those of the general audience.

Relevant quote from David Foster Wallace:

If you, the writer, succumb to the idea that the audience is too stupid, then there are two pitfalls. Number one is the avant-garde pitfall, where you have the idea that you’re writing for other writers, so you don’t worry about making yourself accessible or relevant. You worry about making it structurally and technically cutting edge: involuted in the right ways, making the appropriate intertextual references, making it look smart. Not really caring about whether you’re communicating with a reader who cares something about that feeling in the stomach which is why we read. Then, the other end of it is very crass, cynical, commercial pieces of fiction that are done in a formulaic way — essentially television on the page — that manipulate the reader, that set out grotesquely simplified stuff in a childishly riveting way.

What’s weird is that I see these two sides fight with each other and really they both come out of the same thing, which is a contempt for the reader, an idea that literature’s current marginalization is the reader’s fault. The project that’s worth trying is to do stuff that has some of the richness and challenge and emotional and intellectual difficulty of avant-garde literary stuff, stuff that makes the reader confront things rather than ignore them, but to do that in such a way that it’s also pleasurable to read. The reader feels like someone is talking to him rather than striking a number of poses.

Well put but insulting to television which, at its best, is well beyond the quality of the kinds of writing he refers to.

That is excellently expressed. Again it becomes evident to me that I need to read David Foster Wallace.

> television on the page

By which he means most novels, I suppose, which, in turn, means it's nothing to do with television. Add to that all of the wonderful programs on television, such as the films on TCM, the serial dramas on AMC, HBO, and PBS, and the better comedies on the major networks, and this becomes puzzling.

Oh. Wait. No, it doesn't. It becomes a relic from an earlier time, the 1950s and the 1960s, primarily, which has been repeated mindlessly down through the decades as it feeds into a certain classist mindset in the kinds of people who read David Foster Wallace. It reassures them that, even if they haven't given to NPR in five years, they're still better than Those People who still watch television.

Before a hundred channels of cable TV, most TV entertainment was pretty unchallenging because they needed to please everyone. Modern TV can carve deeper niches because there are more channels. I don't know if it's gotten more challenging in those niches, but perhaps it has.

Breaking Bad is certainly more challenging than Gilligan's Island. And yes, the broadening of television did save it.

Feldman strikes me as a composer who has partly avoided and partly succumbed to the trap — all too common, as I see it — of deciding that the state of constant revolution that music has been in since about 1885 means that they can do anything they please and write music according to their own inscrutable (and often mechanical) system, shattering so many expectations so their music defies evaluation and nobody can tell them it isn't good.

Wow, that is just so well put. As an (at best) amateur musician and listener, I've never been able to quite identify what bothers me about (some) "modern" music. I actually like a lot of it, but as you point out, some of it seems guided more by arbitrary formalism than by what actually sounds good.

I'm sure this is opening an off-topic pandora's box, but the evolution of semi-mechanical compositional methods and (to me) seemingly arbitrary formalisms like 12-tone serialism strikes me as aping mathematics, science, or -- these days -- programming. Except with math, proofs have to, well, prove things; science is about empirical discovery; programs actually have to work.

I guess my malaise with 20th century compositional formalisms stems from the fact that there's no similar constraint for the musical outcomes -- when confronted with bafflement or derision from the audience, the composer can simply shrug and say, "it works for me"

Composers like Feldman (and, IMO Carter) seem to have used formal methods to produce some, at least, interesting and, at best, fascinating and beautiful work. And more intuitive 20th century composers like Charles Ives, Ned Rorem and Havergal Brian (to name three fascinating examples of many) really, to me, pushed the boundaries of beauty in music in seemingly less arbitrary ways.

Personally I think it's a real shame that many advanced musicians focus on making 'interesting' music and seem to turn their noses up at merely 'enjoyable' music. It's corrupted entire genres like classical and jazz (Radiohead even managed to almost do it to rock).

The same argument is made for contemporary architecture by Christopher Alexander: almost everyone focuses on creating something novel instead of structures of lasting value and source of, well, goodness. Alexander called this quality 'life'.

I think it is a sad state of affairs that it is indeed so in the modern world.

It is also interesting that it happens in so many distinct areas. Perhaps it is a property of the society and how it is structured today. It is of course rare for a community of nonprofessionals to be able to build a complete modern house. Why this affects musicians too, is not clear to me. The rise of individualism maybe?

John Adams (living composer) has said of a certain period of musical composition (the period when I was studying the subject in college; the late 70s) that "we forgot that music was supposed to sound good."

A similar spirit grips every art form as it becomes enveloped by the academy. See poetry that consists of unrelated overheard conversation snippets. Old-fashioned values like theme, meaning, metaphor, rhyme, meter, and plain pleasant-soundingness are thrown out the window in favor of mere novelty.

Morton Feldman (1926-1987) was convinced that he was a major 20th century composer. That point of view put him in the minority. Now, 26 years after his untimely death, people are starting to agree. Classical music-lovers, numb from all of the brutal, post-war contemporary music, are intrigued by this unusually intuitive composer and his tender, obsessive music.

Feldman's "late" works are the most remarkable. Often spanning hours in length, he transformed the concert into a ritual. "Is music an art form?" he liked to ask. In other words, is music more than just entertainment? His answer was clearly: "Yes".

Feldman's works are not just listened to, they are experienced. They are a mixture of music, performance art, and philosophy. Unlike John Cage, his close friend and mentor, Feldman was not interested in Zen philosophy. But listening to Feldman’s music leads to a heightened state of mind, a kind of musical enlightenment.

I just recorded two of Feldman's greatest works for solo piano: "Palais de Mari" (1986, 23') and "For Bunita Marcus" (1985, 67'). 15 minutes ago, I would've put the probability of seeing an article about Feldman on Hacker News at zero. Bravo.

Feldman's "Rothko Chapel" is a great way to get into his music (written following the suicide of painter Mark Rothko).

Here is part one:


The story of the Rothko Chapel is well worth reading if you like abstract expressionist artwork (de Kooning, Rothko, Kline, Pollock, etc).


Also, I recommend listening to the conversations between John Cage and Morton Feldman:


They talk, drink, smoke in the radio studio. It's all very 1960's but the insight into the lives of great composers is priceless.

> Morton Feldman (1926-1987) was convinced that he was a major 20th century composer. That point of view put him in the minority. Now, 26 years after his untimely death, people are starting to agree.

It's Béla Bartók all over again. I wonder if there's an unwritten rule in nature that truly creative composers have to die before people recognize the value of their work?

A counterexample to this pattern is Philip Glass, who is receiving some recognition, but by virtue of being recognized in his own lifetime, may undercut his own reputation.

Wouldn't Bach, Beethoven, and Mozart be obvious counterexamples?

I was thinking of modern times, "modern" in the sense that thoughtful music is rare.

I suspect that the high concept musicians of our era will not be the ones that are remembered. John Williams or (shudder) Andrew Lloyd Weber perhaps will, and they dodn't need to die to receive recognition. Those unacknowledged geniuses composing difficult music will be obscure footnotes.

Palais de Mari is a great piece of music, very accessible considering the style.

is the recording available online, either youtube or for sale?

This is nicely worded, near the end of the review:

But by that final two hours I was, however, not exactly caught up in the music, but surrounded by it, subdued by it, quelled.

There are bound to be things that a piece of music can do to you, with you, if it has 6 hours to become part of your mental landscape... to wait out your normal attempts to "listen" consciously and make sense of it.

I've never been to a similar concert, but it makes me think about long car voyages I've taken with (accidentally) only one CD in the car. Some albums turn to crap after a few hours. Others keep getting better, or more interesting, or a presence you are comfortable with even if it's not moving you anymore.

Interesting stuff to play with, though of course who has the time, normally...

"Intermittent silences grew longer, and finally one arrived that seemed endless, until we broke it with a fortissimo of applause."

I had a similar experience as a performer of Terry Riley's "In C" in 1978. As I finished the piece (everyone finishes at their own pace), I walked off stage and went around to the back of the auditorium, with the audience.

As the last performers left the stage, the only sound left was the repetitive octave C eighth notes on the piano that had started the piece 45 minutes earlier.

Then that too stopped, leaving us in total silence. It took a good 10-15 seconds for it to sink in that the piece was over, then the audience erupted in great applause.

Kyle Gann (the author of this essay) has written some of the best English language essays on Morton Feldman.

There's another good essay by Alex Ross, music critic at the New Yorker:


I never quite understood why music went this way. My take is that, as always, musicians had to have some kind of sponsorship, and it slowly shifted from musician being sponsored by noble family (for example Liszt and Esterhazy) to getting a stipend from some institutions board (for example Arnold Schoenberg who worked as a bank clerk and got his first stipend through intervention of friends). That is why nowadays you get much more quality from say jazz than you get from classically trained composers.

There is good, quality classical still being written today. Try John Adams, for example. His website is


My favorite piece of his is Harmonielehre, but there is lots of great stuff there.

+1 for John Adams. Or Steve Reich. Or Phillip Glass. Or Morton Lauridsen.

Morton Lauridsen was new to me. I just downloaded an album from iTunes - O Nata Lux is fantastic. Kind of funny to get classical tips on HN :-).

Thanks for the link. I also like minimalism, I can say that it is my favorite style in modern classical music. Found this little clip while I was preparing my music history exams few years ago, it really explains Philip Glass nicely :) http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nNiOqa1nWgI

So, some things happened in the twentieth century. Basically there are two trends that developed, and reinforced each other without necessarily intending to.

One was the disengagement of general audiences from "classical" (for lack of a better term) music. The other was the disengagement of composers from general audiences.

Each group did this, largely for its own reasons, but each side's disengagement only sped up the other's. The result of this is that you have a general audience who is largely ignorant of what was going on in music, and a world of composers who became more and more insular, writing largely for each other and to make increasingly-arcane points about music theory.

This means that when you listen to contemporary classical music, you're A) listening to something that was not written with you in mind as an audience, and B) utterly lacking the background -- the traditions, the movements, the reactions and counter-reactions -- to understand what's going on in the music.

In a broader sense, this happened in basically all the arts, but music is one of the areas where we seem to notice it more often.

>That is why nowadays you get much more quality from say jazz than you get from classically trained composers.

Define quality.

If you mean "you get much more to stomp your feet in the beat to", then OK.

In my mind the interesting/curious transition is from music that "anybody" can play to music that requires the very very best players in the world. (I mean seriously, if the Kronos Quartet can't handle playing your string quartet...)

I mean, I'm a fair amateur bassoon and piano player. I've played bassoon on four Beethoven symphonies over the years, and technically they were easily within my grasp. His piano sonatas push me, but back when I was actively playing piano I could make them sound like music.

I've played some more modern music which was much harder, and while I quite like some of it, I sure don't think it was "better" than Beethoven.

I think the exact same thing has happened to jazz, too, it's just a few decades behind "classical" music in the transition...

I suppose in the recording and mass-distribution age, it makes sense to maximise for player ability (assuming it's worthwhile) if you only need one performance to make the piece immortal.

Here's a link to a clip of the music


Doesn't do much for me, but I'm no music afficianado.

It doesn’t make much sense to “try Feldman” by listening to excerpts, you have to experience the whole piece if possible. The process of trying to find some meaning in the music and the eventual point of giving up and just accepting it is very interesting. At least that’s my point of view after listening to a live concert of Feldman’s For John Cage (70 minutes).

In my experience it is highly impractical to expect someone to try anything for 70 minutes before deciding if they like it. Some kind of step-wise introduction is more helpful.

It's not easy with Feldman, but I am convinced it is possible.

Here is a 2 minute excerpt of "Palais de Mari" from 1986 (for solo piano) that may help people decide whether they want to hear more: http://ivancdg.com/music/1.mp3

People have told me that this reminds them of Debussy (the Prélude "Footprints in the Snow", specifically).

Not sure about Debussy, but this clip you posted reminds me of Für Alina by Arvo Pärt, 1976.

While that is true, Feldman did encourage people to walk out, do their daily chores, have some fresh air etc. and come back in if they wanted to, in the brief introduction speeches to some of the performances of his longer (5+ hour) pieces.

Citing Feldman's turkish carpet study as a reference is interesting: Christopher Alexander (architectural design patterns, at the origin of software design patterns) also studied turkish carpets in 'Foreshadowing of 21st Century Art: The Color and Geometry of Very Early Turkish Carpets (1993)'

I am impressed contemporary classical music has such a warm welcome here in a technological community.

Here's a thoroughly thought-provoking hour of Feldman in conversation with John Cage on radio, from 1966:


I highly recommend listening to the entire series, of which this is part three.

Contemporary art tries to describe some kind of distorted reality. We live in really fucked up times, more fragmented and complex, better documented and infomercialed but at the same time less understood in it's entirety than ever before. Modern art tends to describe this condition rather then to appease or to gloss over it. But that is nothing where people in 300 years will look back as something beautiful ( try to listen to ancient greek music, you will know what i mean ), point.

I think that one of the major points of modern(ish) art is being free from having to describe anything.

Are you serious? This isn't a joke?

I know it's hard to tell with modernists sometimes (especially when John Cage is involved!), but this one is serious.

I think the endurance of the performers is what impresses me most...

Interesting analysis of another amazing Feldman work, "Piano and String Quartet", including a visualization of the "Turkish Rug" formalism: http://www.cnvill.net/mfsani2.htm

Looks a bit like cellular automata. :)

There's a saying to describe such a performance and the people who do appreciate that kind of 'stuff': artsy fartsy.

I'm sure half of the pleasure is to then talk about how incredible, magnificent and transcendental it was to assist to such a performance. Must make one feel special in NYC.

I also do appreciate the humility in that title: "Almost too beautiful". Sure, we mere mortals can't understand this, because it's too beautiful for us.

Several people have asked if this was a joke... By now I'm honestly beginning to think that HN has been trolled by a ring with sufficient accounts to upvote anything they want on the HN front page :-/

It's really easy to sneer at anybody trying to talk about something impossible to put into words, any experience which cannot be recreated through language. Yet this is the subject of some of the greatest works of art in every medium.

If you have truly never experienced something that jolted you suddenly and thoroughly into recognizing yourself as a small person in the wake of something large and vast, that's a shame. But I assure you that such experiences exist, and that they are indeed magical.

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