A Discussion of.... Classical Music: Why Bother? by Joshua Fineberg

Professor Joshua Fineberg's book Classical Music: Why Bother? is both a critical analysis and listening guide of contemporary music from the unique perspective of a contemporary American composer. I think it is valuable reading for both musicians and the 'general public' and encourages the reader to further explore contemporary music as it relates to classical music, artistic value, the economy, and other popular and non-popular art forms.


It is important to understand Fineberg's background in order to understand better his point of view, as well as make sense of what he is trying to accomplish in his book. Like many composers in the United States, he has university professorship, formerly at Harvard University and currently as the director of the Boston University Center for New Music. As a student of Tristan Murail in Paris, and later working at IRCAM and with the Ensemble Intercontemporain, he stylistically established himself as a spectral composer. Spectralism, or spectral music, developed in France in the 1970s as a compositional technique that used computer analysis to analyze sound timbre. Fineberg writes:

Spectral composers have sought to create a music that was built to function (by function, I mean to create specific compositionally controlled auditory impressions in the listeners subjective awareness), and instead of a music that functions inspire of how it was built.  For example, some of the classic pieces from the Darmstadt era of serialism in the 1950s and 1906s - such as Luigi Nono’s Il canto sospeso and Pierre Boulez’s Le martial sans maitre - whose effectiveness derives from a sense of orchestration, motion and contrast, not through a study of the voluminous analyses of permutations and calculations that went into their composition.  The pieces work in spite of this intellectual baggage not because of it.  Therefore, the spectralists turned to the developing fields of acoustics, psychoacoustics, electronic and computer music, and cognitive sciences to find directly things that could be heard and impressions that could be created.  This information did not tell them how to compose, but merely where to look. (Fineberg, 111)

Spectralism has since become, in practice, a compositional attitude towards sound and acoustics, more than a compositional technique, and has influenced many different subgenera of contemporary music. Fineberg returned to the United States in 1997 to pursue a doctorate degree at Columbia, but to this day it appears that the majority of his works are commissioned by and premiered in Europe. I believe his opinions on both the position of contemporary music in the US (which I do not disagree with) and what contemporary music is and should be (the eighth chapter in his book, for instance, entitled "Designing Music for Human Beings") are shaped by his training and work in Europe, as well as his academic position in the United States.


While Fineberg's work has been accepted by the American contemporary music academic establishment and in Europe, he laments contemporary music's position in the United States. He writes in his introduction: "this type of music [contemporary] has been pushed so far outside of the cultural mainstream that hardly anyone would feel the slightest compunction about failing to recognize the names of the important contemporary composers" (Fineberg, xii). This probably also could be said with regard to general knowledge of most classical composers amongst the general American population, especially knowledge of American composers. He proposes that the reason for this is the "changing place accorded to art in general within contemporary society", resulting in people hearing less classical music and new music on TV and on the radio (Fineberg, xv). I think that it would be more accurate to say that the place of classical music is changing; other art forms have been able to retain their societal presence, but classical music, for many reasons, has had more of a challenge, I believe, staying in mainstream cultural society. With the advent of technology, one could even argue that there is more access to classical music and contemporary music than ever before, via the internet (YouTube, concert streaming services), television, satellite radio stations, national public radio, and at the movies (MetHD, for instance). Somehow, though, there is still less public knowledge and interest in classical music. With regard to contemporary music's position within classical music, Fineberg acknowledges that "while I and other composers of contemporary music feel that our work is the continuation of the classical tradition, it often does not sound at all like that music" (Fineberg, xi). He stresses, in particular, that composers should return to "designing music meant for humans", in reference to the spectral model of "sound evolving in time", regardless of any formulaic, mathematic, or technical compositional means (Fineberg, 112). He also advocates for a return to some basic fundamentals of tonality and composition, urging composers to discover first "the principals that allow the language [of music] to function" (Fineberg, 89). Beneath Fineberg's argument is the sentiment that spectral music, in particular, will be able to be aesthetically successful to even the novel listener, thus enabling contemporary music to re-establish itself within classical music society, and greater culture as a whole.


"I don't believe we will ever come up with a way of justifying this sort of art through personal taste or market preference alone." (Fineberg, 143)

It was reported as early as 1966, by William Baumol and William Bowen (Performing Arts: The Economic Dilemma), that the performing arts will never be self sufficient because they are too labor intensive (production costs will always exceed profit) and cannot take advantage of the market economy. This will be true despite effective educational outreach, because even outreach will never reach the majority, and majority involvement is required for participation in the market economy. Compared to the visual arts, which participate in the market economy and have a market value that in many cases establishes their artistic and aesthetic worth (for better or worse), performing arts have a more challenging time building artistic and aesthetic value.* Some popular performing arts, including popular music, musical theater, and even some forms of theater and dance, can be deemed aesthetically valuable within a market economy. (Which of these forms can be considered 'art', and who is charged with making this distinction is another question. Whether aesthetic value and artistic value are corresponding, and how, requires further research and will be left for a future discussion. For classical music, including contemporary music, however, its artistic value is at odds with its aesthetic value, and to survive, people who do not love this "difficult, non functional, and non popular" art have to be convinced that its presence makes the world richer and therefore it should be supported (Fineberg, 10).  

*While artistic and aesthetic value are not defined by Fineberg, from a theoretical basis, I am working my way through Hans van Maanen's book, How to Study Art Worlds, which discusses this at length in reference to the work of theorists Immanuel Kant, Martha Nussbaum, Hans-Georg Gadamer, Noël Carroll, and others.  After finishing, and digesting, that book, I'll discuss it a bit in a future post.


What I found most interesting, and practical for non-musicians, was the model for listening that Fineberg outlines in chapter 7, "'Understanding' Music". He states that there are many things that anyone can hear, without any special knowledge or skill, and that listening well can become a practice used to 'understand', or at least not instantly, cognitively reject, contemporary music.  He takes the pressure off the listener, and even the performer, remarking: 

We can’t really know what a composer intends — we can, however, know what affects the piece produces in us when we hear it.  Moreover, we can imagine that creating this result (the affect) was the composers intent.  Therefore, rather than calling this projected intent a real intention, we will use the funny philosophical lingo and call it an intension…it is as if the piece was designed to make these affects, because they are why we listen to it and care about it. (Fineberg, 94)

Acknowledging the importance of affect, both the individuality and legitimacy of it, could be a tool for audiences who might think that understanding contemporary music is impossible. Fineberg tries to explain the common complaint that he hears about contemporary music - "I just don't get it." He analyzes that there are two possible interpretations of this remark: first, that the audience member might have had certain expectations for the piece that were not met, or second, the piece might have sounded like gibberish, or completely random. The solution he offers to the first interpretation is to try and be more flexible with your listening style. He says, "it's almost impossible to pay attention to something without developing expectations", however, there exists a problem developing and maintaining expectations when listening to contemporary music, since there is very little consensus amongst the artists themselves on what the music should sound like (Fineberg, 99).  For the second interpretation, it might require more listen, and listening more closely. He compares hearing contemporary music to tasting a completely new style of cuisine - the instant reaction might be dislike because the brain has no way to classify something so foreign. Only repeated eating, or listening, will allow the brain to begin to digest (no pun intended) what the ears are hearing.

To assist, he offers a model that involves listening specifically for contentafffect, and form. No matter how unfamiliar the piece, learning how to listen, Fineberg says, is crucial to giving the mind the greatest opportunity to 'understand', or absorb, what is being heard. Content varies the most from work to work, while affect and form can vary on an individual basis because of human memory and cultural experience. In order to listen for content, Fineberg advises listening for texture, motives, cadences, structural highpoint, and 'harmony' (in whatever form harmony might take). Affect, which was already briefly touched upon, includes taking stock of any feeling or emotions conjured by the listener, right or wrong, and regardless of compositional 'intent'. Finally, listening for form involves listening for any repetition and development, as well as realizing ones own expectations and when those are or are not met.

However rudimentary this seems, I think the model of content, affect and form can be tremendously useful for audiences. As musicians, we often expect an audience to listen without giving them a guide for how to do so. I also think this model is practical because it can be applied to any genre of contemporary music.


What I have outlined here is by no means a comprehensive reflection of the entire contents of the book, but rather an introduction to some of the topics that were most interesting to me and my area of research. While Fineberg's comments regarding on aesthetic and artistic value, the relationship those terms have to each other, what constitutes art, the role of craft and intent in defining art, how value is established, and the relationship between art and capitalism are incredibly important to his discussion, more research (on my part) is required into the existing theoretical literature in order to establish a more concrete link as to how these concepts apply to contemporary music. As for the model of listening - content, affect, form - I am curious to test out in the future how its use by audiences might effect their experience of a contemporary music performance.


Lucy Abrams