Friday, October 24, 2014

It may be hard on the reader - an inspirational quote from Kyle Gann

First, a reminder: next week we will implement readalong blogging procedures for Knut Hamsun’s Mysteries and Nicanor Parra’s Poemas y Antipoemas. Still plenty of time to read either, or both.  The Hamsun novel is by the far the crazier of the two, but the Parra is fun, too:

The author will not answer for any problems his writings may raise:
It may be hard on the reader
But he'll have to accept this from here on in.

(click Anthology, then “Warning to the Reader”)

Now, an inspirational quotation.

Kyle Gann is one of the great critics of what he calls post-classical music, works grounded in one way or another in the classical or Romantic tradition yet distant enough that most supposed fans of classical music hate them, composers like Alvin Lucier.  I have learned so much from Gann, who now is a composition teacher at Bard and thus reserves his criticism for his PostClassic blog, or for books.  His forthcoming book on Charles Ives’s Concord Sonata could make an appearance on Wuthering Expectations.

The quote.  Gann is, in the oldest professorial tradition, complaining about his students.  I’ll skip all that.  I want this part:

No one has ever called me un-opinionated, but when I was 18, I was going to be damned before I would admit that there was a piece of modern music in existence that I couldn’t understand.  I’d listen to the same record a dozen times in a row until the piece started to make sense to me.  I wasn’t committed to liking everything I heard, but I was going to understand every single piece well enough to understand why somebody liked it, even if I didn’t, and I was going to be able to articulate why, of all the complex and opaque pieces ever written, I’d decided I didn’t like this one.  I withheld judgments for years, decades, until I felt I had done sufficient analysis to come to an opinion.

Impassioned Appreciationism.  Of course I admire Gann because he flatters by prejudices.  The last line is challenging, though.  I certainly jump to conclusions too quickly.  Sure, we can do both things at once – judge and withhold judgment.  I am impressed, though, by anyone willing to say “I don’t know” or “I don’t get it – not yet.”

In my own experience, whenever I have put in the kind of work Gann describes I invariably end up liking, or appreciating, or let’s say no longer disliking the piece in question.  I have not just studied the text but extended my sympathy to those who genuinely liked it.  It usually turns out that they were to some degree right.  Why else do I read so much criticism?  Show me what you see.  Maybe then I will see it, too.


  1. What would Nagel think of such a rationalist approach to appreciation? Perhaps over time all we do is erase our instinctive response, which may be the more valid and real response? At least that's my excuse for not having the time to engage this fully with even a part of the oeuvre, let alone the whole damn thing...

  2. The ideal, I think, is not to erase the instinctive response but to pursue it. Gann's frustration is that he sees so many students who take their early response to a work of art as the end of the story. No, it's the beginning, it's a signal that it is time to get to work.

    Those of us who are amateurs can't really do what Gann did and does, but I take him as a positive model.