The Great Divide

There’s a lot of music out there that I fell in love with the very first time that I heard it. From Holst’s Hammersmith to Higdon’s concerto for orchestra, there are many pieces out there that I latched onto at my first exposure and never looked back. As you might expect, I listen to these pieces a lot. Not on a constant loop, necessarily, but considerably more often than I listen to other quality things that stock my iTunes and Spotify libraries. Whenever I have a strong, specific urge to listen to piece X, it’s almost invariably for one of these pieces.

There’s also a lot of music that I’ve disliked quite intensely from the first time I encountered it. Babbitt’s Philomel is not my jam, and neither is Schubert’s Schöne Müllerin (SORRY NOT SORRY).  Needless to say, I hardly ever listen to these things, unless they wind up packaged on an album with something else I’m interested in or I have to for an academic class.

But there’s another category, too, one that I may actually listen to more even than the first category: Works I don’t understand.

It may be hard to believe if you’ve seen the amount of snark I throw at things I don’t like, but I’m actually pretty picky about my negativity. It’s not enough for me to say “I don’t get it” or “this wasn’t a particularly enjoyable concertgoing experience”; for me to be satisfied, I have to be able to say why I don’t like it. Is it the melody? The harmony? The sexism in the libretto? I need to be able to put my finger on what’s bothering me before I can move on.

But, of course, to do that I have to be able to pick the work apart; I have to know what’s going on. For many pieces, I can actually do this in real time. This is part of what advanced Western musical training prepares you for: coming to grips with past and current trends in musical composition and performance and taking that knowledge to contextualize and analyze works that aren’t yet familiar to you. It’s taken me quite a while to get here, but I can walk out of a concert of world premières with pretty cogent things to say about most of the pieces — this one had beautiful timbral effects but not enough harmonic motion to sustain my interest, that one went on for twice as long as it should’ve, this other one is doing really cool things with respect to revivifying historical forms, etc etc etc.

Still, even so, there are still pieces that flummox me. And my reaction to those isn’t “oh, I didn’t get it; I don’t like it”, it’s “I gotta explore this and figure out what’s going on!”. Not infrequently, once I’ve spent more time delving into the work’s inner workings, I’ll have an epiphany and realize that the piece actually is doing something super cool, and it’ll wind up going into my “acquired tastes” category, to be pulled out as needed. Other times, tho, it will be more of a negative epiphany: “OK, I understand how this piece ticks; now that that mystery is gone, I just find it boring/irritating/unpleasant because it does things X, Y, and Z.”

But here’s the thing: I have no way of telling which of those is going to happen before I actually have the epiphany.

Oh sure, I’ll have hunches, vague guesses that this is probably going to be a piece I like, and that one probably not, but those guesses are often wrong, and I don’t like to rely on them. It’s like a sea monster, rising out of the ocean depths, just moments before cresting the surface: There’s a thin film of water sloughing off the creature’s back, and you know that some of it is going to fall off to the right and some to the left, but, especially for the water right in the middle, you can’t predict precisely where each and every molecule is going to go. (In this analogy, pieces of music are the water molecules.)

I think of this split — between pieces of music I don’t get but will wind up liking and music I don’t get and won’t wind up liking — as the Great Divide — its path is intricate, fractaline, and unpredictable, but crossing just doesn’t happen — my tastes are deeply entrenched, and while digging into works I don’t get may well add new vistas to things I know I like (or don’t), doing so doesn’t make me stop liking works I used to like before.

I also think of it as the Brahms/Mahler split, because at the time I first became aware of it as A Thing in my listening habits, I was deeply engrossed in trying to suss out how I felt about those two composers. This was in the summer of 2010 when I was out at Tanglewood, and over the course of that summer the BSO played quite a bit of Mahler. It was my first time hearing his music live, and it rapidly pushed me in the direction of being a fan. (I am still very firmly of the opinion that Mahler loses more than most in the recording process. If you’re on the fence about Mahler and have the opportunity to see a concert with his works live, definitely take advantage of it before making up your mind one way or the other.)

Brahms is murkier. I have had moments of clarity, moments where the impenetrable surface of his music seems to slip just the tiniest fraction and a sliver of understanding sneaks in, and while those flashes suggest to me that his are not going to be works I ultimately enjoy, they inevitably fade, leaving his work inscrutable as before. Maybe someday the fog will lift for good and I’ll be able to say with full understanding whether his works really are (or aren’t) for me, but that day hasn’t fully happened yet.

In the meantime, then, I’ve just got to keep on listening.