Thursday, March 12, 2009

Accessible music?

Since the beginning of my compositional career, I've always had an unusual problem with the word "accessible". For me, this word seems to be nothing more than an opinion which is "masked" as fact, and can be manipulated by certain agenda driven people to thrust their own cause and attempt to damage other expressions of thought at the same time. This kind of tactic, I feel, is an absolute detriment to any free thinking society.

I recently read a review of a recording containing the Violin Concerto by Arnold Schöenberg. This reviewer states in his critique that for anyone to like this piece, depends on "how hard you, the listener, feels like working, and how much the performance rewards your time and effort." The reviewer goes on to say that if you are new to this piece, then you should "start with the finale. It contains several memorable tunes and motives that recur with relative frequency, in a clear march rhythm."

After reading this, I was predictably annoyed. It is a tale I've heard before, many times. The theory that an "accessible" piece is primarily simple with a tuneful nature, and a piece that's not so "accessible" is much more complex and requires work from the listener in order to be enjoyed. Well, I can respect this reviewer in his attempt to influence the listener into buying the recording, but I find his manner of critique to be a form of unnecessary "toilet training" for people that already have a decent head on their shoulders.

It is clear to me that all the great composers regardless of what musical "language" they're using, have an innate ability to take his or her materials they come up with in their dreams, and then carefully develop these materials into wonderful pieces of music which any listener, at the very least, can feel in their soul. This issue alone makes the concept of "simple" and "complex" irrelevant. A great composer's work transcends those petty words.

There is truly an inner spirit within a great opus of any style which is a blend of the composer's otherworldly talent, along with the circumstances he or she is living through at the time, and the disciplined effort to make it all work. No matter how different the composers like Bach, Beethoven, Ives, Ellington, Adams and Prince are from each other, they all have this same aforementioned qualities that make them who they are, tune or no tune. These greats, like many others, have done all the work so that you, the listeners, don't have to.

This is the way it's supposed to be. Listening is an illuminating and soul touching experience, not work. One should simply let the music flow through the body and it would do it's magic. Of course, there are numerous benefits and pleasures in hearing a piece more than once, but one would be doing that anyway because he or she got something out of it the first time around, not because they hope they'll "get it" after hearing it a few more times, due to their personal insecurities of not being "cultured" enough.

The fact is, accessible pieces of music are numerous in their sounds, styles and expressions, large and small. And they all sound fantastic!

It's as simple as that.



  1. Charles,

    Beautifully said and necessary to state.

    Terrific entry!

    Jeff James

  2. I find this article to be inaccessible.

    Kidding aside, Charles you've touched on something that's been the core of my internal struggle as a composer my entire life, starting way back when I was 13, writing my first orchestral work and whenever I wrote something even mildly dissonant I'd never hear the end of it from my parents, who, at that time, were my entire audience. By the time I got to college dissonance in my work started to peek through and while I was able to eventually put aside the opinion of my parents, I started to get criticism from myself instead...always wondering if I am going too far and losing my audience. Of course that's totally not the point is it. I should have been far more worried about losing myself. If a composer is true to their own voice, accessibility becomes irrelevant as you say. Even if it touches ONE other person, that's all that matters in the end.

    Even our teachers have tried to tell us in one way or another, what they feel is necessary in music to speak. Some say melody is critical...others say a sense of strong beat while others still say predictable harmonic movement and form. Yet... Lux Aeterna of Ligeti never fails to speak to many people.

    Lest we also forget how much film music has done for expanding the ears and minds of people all around the world. Saturday morning cartoons alone... Carl Stalling... shaping minds from very young.

    People can take it. They've just been sold so deeply the myth that music must be "simplistic" (I avoid the word simple), in order to be understandable.

    Anyway, we all know that quote attributed to Abraham Lincoln about pleasing people...

    Great Post. Thanks!