Jan 11

The Year Of Difficult Listening

FT119 comments • 2,628 views

(crossposted with Tumblr)

The Year Of Difficult Reading is a blog reading project someone’s doing – tackle “twelve of the most notoriously difficult novels in the English language” across 2011, one a month. (Two of ’em aren’t English language novels, but they are very well-read in translation, so no quibbling!)

Obviously this project raises a million questions about the definition of difficulty, how it gets assigned, what the value is in approaching ‘difficult’ art, and so on. That’s precisely WHY I thought it would be really interesting to ask what a music equivalent would look like. What records would be on it? What balance of classical tradition and others? What does “difficulty” sound like – does material that’s emotionally or politically difficult stack up against things that are sonically taxing? The reading tumblr has picked stuff which – by and large – is already in the canon, but is this an option in music?

So this post is a call for suggestions, rather than simply discussion. Because it takes less time to listen to a record than to read a book – even a difficult record! – I think we can go for 52 items, not just 12. I’m not necessarily going to DO this project – I have enough on my plate as it is – but I’m very happy to crowdsource a curriculum and leave it open to any lunatic who wants something to take on. Or just leave it as a list and an idea. What I’m hoping to end up with is a list which would include material that you might see as “difficult” whatever your current comfort zone might be. Perhaps that’s impossible. Perhaps the whole idea is misguided. Let’s find out!

Your suggestions?


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  1. 91
    Tom on 20 Jan 2011 #

    I wonder if FOOD is a better comparator than literature.

  2. 92
    thefatgit on 20 Jan 2011 #

    Haha! Can “acquired taste” be relevant in a musical context?

  3. 93

    I will scorn Masterchef until a contestant serves a dish involving the raspberry bootlace.

  4. 94
    enitharmon on 20 Jan 2011 #

    Mark, I think you know I’m not at all averse to scholarly analysis of such things. I do it myself sometimes. And I wasn’t aiming at you personally, just at the type. But it did strike that one might make an observation of the “why punk had to happen” type.

    I suppose most (if not all) of Leonard Cohen has to be included in the “difficult” category. And if Lennie, then Tim Hardin, and much of Bob Dylan. Does “difficult” then merge into “not superficial”?

  5. 95

    My sense — I guess it’s one of the things that got me interested in the first place — is that something “like”
    punk has been repeatedly recurring in music, since at least the mid-19th century: a new group of music-makers (and listeners) reacting against the what seems to be the closed-world impenetrablity of their predecessors, and precipitately dispensing with some element of technique or attitude which the predecessor world considered indispensible. Debussy’s or Satie’s scorn for Wagner and the germanic trend to overthinking structure; jazz, obviously; John Cage versus everyone; rock’n’roll versus jazz; rap versus 80s pop-soul. And so on…

    Some of it is “ourselves at 40 versus ourselves at 25 versus ourselves at 15 versus ourselves at 13 versus ourselves at 8”: and food fits in there.

  6. 96
    Hazel on 20 Jan 2011 #

    Something I was just thinking of was that the most difficult albums in might well be those by beloved artists who then do something else. For instance, if Bob Dylan made a synthpop album that might well be tricky for his existing fanbase. I don’t know if there are any legs on this but thinking of what I find difficult in my own taste -and I think to assess something as ‘difficult’ rather than ‘disliked’ might be that the artist can do other things, so this thing is a deliberate problematisation- is when an artist I like does, for instance, an acoustic album and I find my excitement at their new release tapers into worried boredom fairly fast. Devin Townsend, I am looking at you.

    Which of course brings in BEING A REAL FAN.

  7. 97
    Tom on 20 Jan 2011 #

    Dylan is a great example because he’s totally the poster boy for completely alienating a huge chunk of his existing audience. History has comprehensively pooh-poohed the people who didn’t think he should have “gone electric”, but if yr reasons for liking Dylan were “Masters Of War”, “The Times They Are A Changin'” etc and you thought, “Bah, this new stuff is just noise and riddles” it’s not exactly difficult to emphathise.

  8. 98

    Just to tie lots of stuff together here is my long-ago Wire essay on people pulling the carpet out from under their followers’ assumptions. I am pleased to see it begins with BROS! *congratulates self*

  9. 99

    (haha tho some of that piece i now find THOROUGHLY ANNOYING)

  10. 100
    Cumbrian on 20 Jan 2011 #

    #97 Agreed that Dylan is the major example of this. Neil Young is pretty famous for this stuff too though, running Dylan close just for the sheer number of times he has done it more than anything else. People loved the Crazy Horse stuff in the late 60’s – response is to make a record with a totally different backing band and starting including orchestral elements in his music. The success of Harvest lead to the “Ditch Trilogy”. He produced Trans – ditching the Crazy Horse sound that had been successful for Rust Never Sleeps for electronic influences. The record company asked for a rock n roll album, so he gave them exactly that and everyone hated it. Just as the fans start getting excited that his next release would be the long awaited Archives, his next record was in fact a concept album about electric cars.

    I don’t find Neil Young’s music difficult – but it’s clear that he sometimes enjoys being a difficult bastard himself. I don’t mind Everybody’s Rockin’ either. It’s not very good – but the joke more than makes up for it I think.

  11. 101
    punctum on 20 Jan 2011 #

    #96: Oh Mercy was pretty much Dylan’s “synthpop” album.

  12. 102
    Tom on 20 Jan 2011 #

    A gritty, patiently compiled century for this thread.

  13. 103
    lonepilgrim on 20 Jan 2011 #

    Hazel @96 makes the point more clearly that I was trying to make @78.
    I’d argue that Dylan’s ‘synthpop’ album was ‘Empire Burlesque’ – complete with Arthur Baker production.

    I know jazz ‘fans’ who won’t consider Miles Davis’ work from the late 60s onwards as jazz – or even ‘music’.

    Prince approach to alienating all but the completist fan has been to offer a surfeit of music to the point where I for one didn’t want any more.

    As for Mark’s points about ‘Classical’ music @84 & 87- I often feel very ignorant when listening to such music. I’m aware that ‘I don’t know much about it – but I know what I like’ – which is an attitude that in the visual arts (where I have some training) I disdain.

  14. 104
    byebyepride on 21 Jan 2011 #

    Excellent discussion, which I might try to post something more considered in response to later. [aka get all ‘classical’]

    Instead of that here’s a ‘pop’ response [throwaway]. [sort of half trolling but that wasn’t the point of the post so move along…]

    The record I’ve found most difficult recently is Keith Jarret’s Koln Concert. I understand that this was at one point *huge* to many people although reading online hasn’t allowed me to see whether that’s genuine masterpiece huge or Radiohead-esque faux-gravitas huge. But I can’t hear *anything* in it. I can take extreme music (Ikeda say) or modern classical (Schoenberg or Xenakis) so I wonder whether I’m just not particularly familiar with the jazz background against which I guess a record like this has to be heard.

  15. 105
    koganbot on 21 Jan 2011 #

    Audiences that are expected to participate in the music also include dancers, kids at rock concerts, choirs in church, kids at day camp, etc.

    Mark, I don’t think you got around to responding to this sentence: “Someone could argue that I only write well about music when I figure out a way to write about something related to the music that isn’t the music itself.”

    In any event, this song has gotten 3,380,640 comments, which would apparently define it as “easy to write about” (even assuming that not all 3,380,640 comments are by different people).

    Whereas, back in the day of this song, there would have been few musical analyses of it, and most of what was published about the band would have most likely been thought of as “biography” or “gossip” (as opposed to what got published about, say, Guns N’ Roses, or the Smiths, or Nirvana). But I wouldn’t say that a genre suddenly became massively easy to write about in 2010 that had been hard to write about in 1989 – rather, that now a lot of people are “publishing” who couldn’t before.

    Nonetheless, how much are they writing about the music?

    A lot of people here found it easy to type in thoughts about Bruce Springsteen, but were they able to say a lot about how Bruce’s stuff sounds? This was the comment that did the best, I thought:

    pretty much every bruce song i’ve heard starts with a massive thrilling build-up which makes you think something brilliant is about to happen, it builds and builds until you can take no more and then finally, the release comes and it breaks into… ultra lame sax ‘n’ keyboard plodding.

    I consider that passage good criticism – don’t know if I’d ever do better when it comes to the sound of Bruce – but really when you come down to it, the music description is entirely these phrases: “thrilling build-up,” “builds and builds,” “breaks into… ultra lame sax ‘n’ keyboard plodding.” Whereas people who write about “difficult” music do find a lot to say about musical structure, timbre, something that isn’t just the lyrics or the video or recitation of song titles with some adjectives sprinkled in. Whether the extra something that does get written about “serious music” is worthwhile (“arpeggios in the 13th through 44th measures”!) is a different question. My point is that in some ways, for those trained to do so, writing about “serious” music is easier than writing about dance music or pop music or rock music, in that there’s something people have been taught to say about the music.

    Number of comments now up to 3,380,984.

  16. 106
    punctum on 21 Jan 2011 #

    The second vid link provides this response:

    This video contains content from Vevo, who has blocked it in your country on copyright grounds.
    Sorry about that.

    However, Google reveals it to have been this, about which I wrote some reasonably pointed musical analysis.

  17. 107
    koganbot on 21 Jan 2011 #

    72 comments! Not bad at all.

    Iirc correctly, Rob Sheffield’s piece in Spin as to how the New Kids were like the Rolling Stones included this comparison:

    Rolling Stones = The blues had a baby and they called it rock ‘n’ roll
    New Kids On The Block = Maurice Starr had New Edition and they sued him

    That’s not a direct quote, since I can’t find the piece and I don’t have an up-to-date email address for Rob. I did, however, find this in the archives:

    I am the guitarist responsible for, in the words of Rob Sheffield, the “84 seconds of acoustical guitar noodling” at the end of the new Tiffany album. I for one think Tiffany and George Tobin are to be congratulated for doing something a little different in the genre. I mean, 84 seconds without drum machine, synths or even vocals for that matter. Then again, how much stock can one put in a music critic, lacking the musical sophistication to identify what is actually a medley of three songs on the album, who labels it “noodling”? –Grant Geissman, Van Nuys, CA

  18. 108
    Z on 23 Jan 2011 #

    I think you can acquire a taste in music, as I’ve done so at various times, for example with opera, lieder, modern jazz. I don’t believe that one has to listen to an artist one finds superficial and uninteresting until one either loves or hates it.

    I pretty well ignored new music after the early 1970s for one reason and another, until about four years back, since when I’ve started listening to a wide range. This means that many modern rock classics passed me by, as well as a lot of more immediately popular stuff that hasn’t lasted. So now I come to them with a fresh ear and it’s really interesting to do so – you can pick out the quality, even if ignorant of the musicians.

    I’d call “difficult” music something that’s outside your usual comfort zone but that, even if it’s not music you’d choose to listen to for pleasure long-term, its quality starts to stand out after several playings (listen to it three times and either it starts to grow on you or it grates, whether or not you quite like it at the start). As examples, I’d suggest the Mountain Goats (Get Lonely and The Sunset Tree in particular), Wagner’s Ring Cycle and some Miles Davis.

  19. 109
    lonepilgrim on 27 Jan 2011 #

    I’ve been continuing to chew over this particular bone of contention and was struck by another definition of ‘difficult’ music which would be that which requires particular resources and circumstances to hear. This might include Mahler’s ‘Symphony of a Thousand (No.8)’, Stockhausen’s ‘Helikopter-Streichquartett’ or the Flaming Lips’ ‘Zaireeka’.

  20. 110
    a tanned rested and unlogged lørd sükråt wötsît on 27 Jan 2011 #

    Also Nam June Paik’s “symphony to last a million years”

  21. 111
    xyzzzz__ on 12 Feb 2011 #

    The notion that literature would require more active engagement than music is one I am amused by. With difficult novels, as with difficult music, I always turn pages/wait for the minutes to roll by where nothing registers until I get to a point where gradually you get to part you can make something out of by using past knowledge to connect with something new.

    You just have to wait.

  22. 112
    xyzzzz__ on 12 Feb 2011 #

    Looking at the list it certainly wants to confuse difficulty in technique with gargantuan length. 9,000 pages is the blogger’s definition (so it could have been just a bunch of 18th century bricks), whereas much of the discussion here is what types of knowledge you bring to the table. And I have my good and bad days with this question.

    But similarly with books isn’t there a lot of knowledge about language you’d need to bring to the table? — especially when it comes to poetry.

    A year of difficult listening would probably centre on works I get into and struggle with but only because I haven’t discovered that trick my mind needs to tell my ear so that it can be re-wired. Certain works by Milton Babbitt (who I was thinking a bit about this morning) and Beethoven’s late quartets come into mind.

  23. 113

    In book and music some kinds of difficulty directly relate to not knowing, at point, WHICH bits you’re meant to be storing as potential “past knowledge” when you get to the point in the future where you could use it. There’s always an overload of information — even music or literature that makes a point of cutting away irrelevant information (for example sources of narrative or quasi-narrative pleasure that are distractions in the intended context), as some strands of modernism do, can’t possibly cut away everything that might be distracting or irrelevant, in the composer’s or writer’s mind’s ear or eye. The flaw in Babbitt’s “Who cares about the listener” argument — even accepting that this wasn’t his intended title — is that the composer CAN’T tamp down all possible, well, punctum: the listeners ALWAYS bring some of their own sandwiches to the picnic, in the form of information they consider relevant garnered before the performance began. The point I was making in my Xenakis piece was basically that a sub-generation of post-war modernist composers really did behave as if music-making could sustainably be based on the establishment of little gaming clubs where the listeners all arrived with the appropriate rulebooks having signed agreeements that their responses would all fall within the correct set of rules. But all the little clubs were in effect competing with each other; diminishingone another’s listener-set rather than enhancing one another’s meaning-making.

    One of the differences between lit and music is polyphony — different things happening at once. Or perhaps say “at once” operates differently in writing. Hmmm.

    Actually a way to approach this project would be to list and isolate different modes of potential difficulty: so that length and density and intensity of polyphonic interweave — and interweave not just of melody — and etc.

  24. 114
    xyzzzz__ on 12 Feb 2011 #

    There were a group of composers establishing its little scenes but I don’t know if that is any different to splits in, I dunno, reggae or blues or jazz (yes classical would be different because of its going back to school dimension). All the in-fighting has diminished the audience but again, that’s as much to do with a scene connecting with more people one moment and not so much the next?

    Yes plenty of polyphony in writing but how its organized and experienced is completely different.

    Reflecting more on this question is, well, I wonder, building a list of things you can love but haven’t found out how to yet. And not so much things to struggle through and getting a grudging acceptance of its worth (if your ear can’t take Merzbow you can’t take Merzbow). I guess I’m thinking of people who loved indie and hated pop but now love it (you always had the capacity, it wasn’t much of a leap).

    You can always make too many assumptions here.

    Incidentally, I think an approach to reviewing classical on the internet is much easier with uploading. Isolate moments where [x] thing happens and what is good or not so good about it. Easier to isolate modes maybe…awkward to write?

  25. 115

    Factions are one thing, and yes, you find them everywhere. What I’m getting at are compositions which demand that the listener internalise a highly specific set of axioms of organisational choice — possibly relevant only to a single work — in order to be allowed to claim you “understand” that one work. The axiom-set isn’t transferable, sometimes even to the next composition by the same composer
    (at difft tmes this is true of Boulez, Cage, Stockhausen and Xenakis). And the effect was that you couldn’t develop a cultural sense of value — all these pieces had do be considered exactly as successful (which is to say, as unsuccessful) because they were all one of a kind. And what you also got was fan-clubs of hard music who — far from being better listeners or critics — seem to be more passive: that is, they’re aggressive across faction boundaries (same old same old) but allowng themselves to be shut out even of the discussion of the music they claim to favour. (Because they’ve accepted rulebooks and axioms which shut down the discussion; as a consequence putting huge constraints on the capacity of the music to come into its possible meanings.)*

    Babbitt’s piece could also have been called “Who cares about the perfomer?” — or “Who cares about the social?” It’s about lab testing new sounds and sound-clusters, new types of sound-motion — but shutting out any way these can get wound into the wider world, as they’re learned. So they’ve ended up as little more than the objective correlative of a narrow element of the dynamics of their own era — which is not an awful fate, but surely a far tinier role than all the life and time and passion invested by their makers deserves?

    *I guess the literary equivalent is Oulipo: axiomatic games of arbitrary rule and constraint designed to produce and foster the writer’s imagination. But Oulipo’s embrace of rules doesn’t shut out the reader: it has a playful openness and sense of shared enquiry, perhaps because it doesn’t so furuously set itself up as the one true pinnacle of Right Making.

  26. 116
    xyzzzz__ on 19 Feb 2011 #

    Picking this up from last week.

    I accept parts of that argument for a lot of modern composition in the sense that composers wrote a lot about their own music and wanted to carve their own identity for it (whereas pop stars give interviews and carve identity in a diff way).

    I feel I develop a sense of cultural value when I’m listening to modern composers (and composers of all sorts). If by that you mean that I can like [x] composition by one composers but not [y] by the same. I think that is true of people with different sets of knowledge (at least when I talk to them on msg boards).

    You are claiming in one sentence that there is a lot of in-fighting but on the other hand fans of this kind of music are more passive. I think the passivity is there but its easier to see because (unlike more popular musics) the volumes of people in the room are lower and there is a stronger archival dimension (the sleeve notes for those releases are usually of a poor quality). The music did develop in academia and labs (again, I’m prepared to accept the title of Milton’s essay as the editor probably inferred a ‘who cares’ attitude from). The point though is that a lot of this music comes from the wider world already and it is there as a response to it.

    Oulipo is more like what you’re describing — from what I’ve read guys like Perec, Mathews, Queneau had a high level of agreement on first principles. Whereas all sorts of music were played in the first years of Darmstadt until certain factions took it over. A lot less cosy.

  27. 117

    Yes, well spotted on “passivity” — not a very clear way of saying what I meant; and I’m not at all as sure that this quality persists in the same way today, among similar groups. Basically after the 60s, audiences of every type got somewhat more sassy towards their own gurus. I guess I meant that people were — in the service of what they deemed an exciting vanguardy idea — more willing to present themselves as followers. So they’d happily fight designated foes, but would be quite meek when they felt it was once more time to shut up sit down and listen.

    Partly this is a technological thing: a lot of this music didn’t get accessibly onto disc till a lot later, and I think the world of the sassy audience is deeply related to the world of listening via record and arguing laterally — in other words, the composer is not in the room, or anywhere near, and not in any sense responsible for the context, where all discussion is more likely to be on his/her terms.

    One of the things that’s often bugged me about much post-68 avant gardism is a sense that its fans feel “Don’t give it too rough a time or it will break and fail.” It has to be kept away from the world it’s commenting on. Though again I feel this observation — about a more recent tendency — is now somewhat dated.

  28. 118
    xyzzzz__ on 19 Feb 2011 #

    I’ve talked to a few of the practitioners and they give some of it a hard time while continuing to play it. Some of these centre on its makeup: namely that it is v white, middle class, mostly male (a post-identity politics critique) pursuit. Much more so than in the 60s where you had Birtwistle, Maxwell Davies, Brian Ferneyhough, James Dillon, who all came from more humble backgrounds.

    A lot of work is being done on trying to uncover the early history of Darmstadt. Much of it is v shady. A more nuanced critique should emerge from all of this.

    The main thing I took from your Xenakis essay was on how its creation was tied with a v repressive regime. ‘Persepolis’ is one of my favourite works by anyone ever but its much harder to listen to now (I’ve been mulling over it these days when turning on the news)

    Another problem is that much of the best music is tied up in publishing: there are a few tapes out there (some of which I’ve gotten hold of) in private hands (as they have found their way onto the net). So again its harder to argue when whispers are all you can onto.

    Although there is quite a lot out there and scraps of light emerge now and then (and by that I don’t mean Alex Ross).

  29. 119
    Gareth Rees on 10 Mar 2011 #

    Some difficult but famous and influential pieces. Tom, is this the kind of thing you’re after?

    Philip Glass — Music in 12 parts (some of part 1)
    Conlon Nancarrow — Studies for Player Piano (number 5)
    Steve Reich — Come Out/It’s Gonna Rain
    Karlheinz Stockhausen — Concrete Étude
    John Cage — Freeman Études (number 18)
    Meredith Monk — Our Lady of Late (part 1)

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