12 June 2009

Pathologies: Pleasure

One of the most pervasive fallacies about "modernist" or "atonal" music is the idea that the people who write it and listen to it are masochists, that they do so out of some kind of aural perversion or love of pain. There's a profoundly flawed conception of normality at the heart of such assumptions, one that takes the language of common practice tonality to be the single aurally nutritious alternative (sounds good and good for you).

There's equal folly inherent in such overly broad sayings as, "Everyone listens to music for the same reason," or, "There are two kinds of music: good and bad." Nonetheless, while I'm not foolish enough to think that there are no true musical masochists out there whatsoever, I don't think that it is in any way a stretch to assert that fans of atonality as group most typically find their favorite music to be "beautiful" (or if that term is too stigmatized at this point, at the very least, we might say "pleasurable" to listen to in some way). Given the low overall rate of true masochism in the general population (musical or otherwise), it would be odd if this were not the case. And given the wide stylistic variety of music that the world has now seen, who is anyone to impose their own conception of normality on an entire musical tradition?

This is just the most visible example of what I find most frustrating when it comes to talking about music, namely when opinion becomes ensconced as fact simply by virtue of how many people share it. When the terms and boundaries of the discourse are set merely by the "lowest common denominator" of taste and experience, it's no surprise that name-calling ends up standing in for rational thought. There are a few pieces of music out there that were intentionally constructed to be annoying, or even torturous, to just about anyone; there are also a few which have succeeded at this entirely unintentionally; and of course, there are also those works which seem to be universally adored, lacking a single detractor the world over. In none of these cases, however, can we assume that these opinions are universally shared, and as such, they make poor candidates on which to base dismissing an entire body of work as mere pathology.

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