The art of garbled polemic

Am I the only newspaper reader who expects an opinion column to develop a coherent thread of argumentation, as distinct from a series of provocative comments stuck together precariously with specious howevers and therefores? The editors who approve these pieces evidently think that a reader who can pay attention from the introduction through to the conclusion must be a person with too much time time on his hands, and hence not worth taking seriously.

Yesterday was a day for bizarre essays in the Sydney Morning Herald, as much as in The Age. First there was Miranda Devine’s piece on World Youth Day. Miranda knows only two ways to write about event X. If event X was bad, Miranda can show it was caused by The Cultural Left. If it was good, she will show how The Cultural Left did everything to prevent it, but that common sense and traditional moral standards prevailed. Yesterday’s was in the second category. The Cultural Left, since the 1960s, has done everything in its power to derail traditional morality, and enshrine moral relativism, drugs, sexual indulgence, and family breakdown in its place. But World Youth Day shows that the newest generation is determined to escape from this cesspit, and return to ‘orthodox religious faith’.

Catholic or not, most people want love and goodness in their lives and the contrast between the radiant faces of the pilgrims and the strained masks of their most strident condom-waving detractors was striking.

So there you have it. If (Catholic or not) you have any disagreement with the Catholic Church’s teachings on contraception, homosexuality, divorce, or the role of women, and — worse still — might be inclined to voice these heresies in public, that makes you a strident, condom-waving, moral relativist libertine.

But, as a case study of the garbled polemic genre, Devine’s piece pales beside Joe Queenan’s critique of ‘new classical music’. At first glance it’s just a formulaic condemnation of atonal classical composers — Berg, Schoenberg and Joe’s special unfavorite, Stockhausen. Pretentious frauds, their ghastly compositions kept alive by cynical musical directors and their shallow and snobbish audiences. And Queenan is the guy who’s prepared to point out that the emperor has no clothes. Well, it’s not an especially original contention, and not especially courageous, since about ninety-nine percent of the population subscribes to it already. But at least you know where he’s coming from, and where he’s heading. Next he’s going to stand up and defend the fans of popular classics, and the people who like Nigel Kennedy and Andrea Bocelli, against those elitist snobs who are always ridiculing them and deploring their vulgar tastes.

Wait a minute, no he isn’t. That’s what Miranda would do, but not Joe. In fact, his contempt for the pseuds who purport to admire the new classics seems to be matched by an equal contempt for fans of the standard classical repertoire. It’s not quite clear why — it has something to do with their not knowing as much as jazz fans, and being content to have a few items of trivia about composers’ personal lives, as a substitute for real understanding of the music. He knows this because he’s ‘been eavesdropping on their conversations for 40 years’. This doesn’t mean that he dislikes the canonical classics himself: at least, he likes Bach. In fact, we have his own testimony that he really is a very cultured fellow indeed. ‘I am’, he informs us,

no lover of Renaissance Muzak and own tonnes of records by Berg, Varese, Webern, Rihm, Schnittke, Ades, Wuorinen, Crumb, Carter, and Babbitt: I consider myself to be the kind of listener contemporary composers would need to reach if they had any hope of achieving a breakthrough.

So, in case you might have thought to question Queenan’s knowledge or taste, you might as well know that this avenue is unavailable to you. Unlike that of the fools he eavesdrops on at concerts, his appreciation of the canon stems from a profound understanding.

But since Joe is obviously no shallow, sentimental traditionalist, there must be some modern classical music that he approves of. It’s not all atonal stuff after all. There is a vast amount of Twentieth Century music that is neither derivative nor atonal. As Tom Service puts it,

There is another story in all this, one that Queenan doesn’t even mention. The music of the 20th century now dominates most orchestral concerts you will ever hear. Shostakovich, Britten, Prokofiev, Stravinsky – especially the early ballets – Debussy, Ravel, Berg, Copland, Bernstein, Bartok: these are the staples of any orchestra’s repertoire now in a way that simply wasn’t the case 50 years ago. The reason Kurtag or Lachenmann aren’t in the repertoire in the same way is that they haven’t composed much for conventional orchestras and, yes, their music requires more time and engagement from its performers than the economics of running an orchestra or large ensemble usually allows; John Adams and Thomas Adès, however, do write for orchestras, and their music is now part of the expanding horizons of Philharmonic orchestras from Los Angeles to Berlin.

So what kind of music does Queenan like? Unfortunately, he is willing to reveal only what he doesn’t like. He approves of abstract painting, but abstract music is no good. At least, not in the concert hall, although he’s inclined to agree with ‘the public’ that it’s OK in films. But then he gives the game away by naming the Jaws theme as the kind of abstract music that doesn’t work in concerts. In fact Jaws, along with half a dozen John Williams film scores, is standard prom concert fare; and it’s about as abstract as, say, Wagner. So if he thinks that’s abstract, where do the rest of the relatively accessible, non-abstract post-war composers fit in?

It turns out, and it shouldn’t be any great surprise by now, that he is contemptuous of all of them. Certainly no great composer has come along recently, so we are stuck with ‘anachronisms (Henryk Gorecki, Arvo Part), infantilists (Glass), eclectics (Corigliano) and atmospheric neo-Brucknerites (John Adams).’

So what is Queenan’s conclusion?

It is hardly surprising that so many composers simply throw in the towel and compose music that will be ignored in their own lifetimes, hoping it will find an audience with posterity.

This makes no sense, even on the 1500th reading, and doesn’t follow from any of his earlier assertions. But since he had no coherent argument in the first place, just a series of lazy shots pandering to a range of prejudices without declaring his own tastes (except for Bach — how safe is that?), he had to produce something resembling a conclusion, at least in the eye of the average inattentive reader.

Miranda, for all her faults, at least stands for something more than her own superiority.

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steve from brisbane
15 years ago

Um, I enjoyed Queenan’s piece because it was funny.

As for his disdain for the classic pop stars of recent years: he wouldn’t be the first to claim that they are not actually all that good in a technical sense. I am not musically educated enough to tell if that true, and allow for a degree of jealously of success in the complaints. But the reason the pop stars of the classics annoy me is for the show biz personae they adopt, with Andre Rieu being possibly the worst offender ever. (At least Liberace was self consciously camp and silly.) Seriously, how can you watch a Rieu show on TV and not want to run from the room. 80% of each show is spent on tight shots of his not particularly attractive mug, and the gap between music is full of his serious murmurings about his violins.

And as for the sins of modern atonal music, even David Byrne had a recent post about it that shows how ridiculous it is, and yet it persists.

15 years ago

Having just followed the link to Dave Byrne’s piece, I read the following in the opening paragraph.

The opera is a classic of 12-tone technique, which means that all 12 notes of the chromatic scale are permissible at any time, and none are emphasized over and above the others.

This is quite wrong. In a 12 tone composition, the entire piece is based on a series of note rows that stipulate when each note is to be played. The term ‘atonal’ is more applicable to the description.

It’s not just an academic distinction; you can get some quite dramatic, distinctive , and, yes, traditionally artistic effects out of 12 tone music. Hence the use by traditionalist composers like Benjamin Britten in his opera A Midsummer Nights Dream. Hence, also, the adaptation of 12 tone composition by Alban Berg in his operas to create a series of musical palindromes, etc, which gives his music a lush and lyrical style that you wouldn’t necessarily associate with modern composition.

Ahem. Pardon me for my pedanticism!

15 years ago

My favourite example of the garbled polemic genre can be found in a recent Janet Albrechtsen blog post which asserted that Julia Gillard’s accent sounds more “centrist” now that she is in Government. I had no idea accents came with ideological affiliations. Next Albrechtsen is going to make blog posts telling us what phrenology can teach us about the Government’s tax policies.

This comes hot on the heals of her gushing swansong interview with Alexander Downer which asserted that conservatives are more cheerful and deploy more humour than progressives. The only thing she left out was empirical evidence to support the claim.

Is that what conservative commentary has come to? Judging people’s ideological affiliations based on their sense of humour and accents? Does this mean I’m allowed to say that the current Pope wears hilarious shoes and sounds like Dr Strangelove, which obviously marks him as a conservative?

Ken Nielsen
Ken Nielsen
15 years ago

To me, the objection to the regular opinion writers is their predictability.
You know what Miranda, Janet or Philip is going to write on any issue. And in many cases you can predict the subject as well.
I suspect that this is what editors want – each columnist is playing a role, calculated to get people nodding or grinding their teeth, depending on the reader’s politics. Surprises are upsetting. Ross Gittins is about the only one who occasionally surprises me and makes me think.
Which is why the blogs are so important – they give variety and provoke thought.

15 years ago

This may concern SMH management but I will only consider buying the rag on a Monday, Wednesday or, at a toss up Friday or Saturday. And it is basically on account of columnists – Henderson on Tuesday, Devine on Thursday. Mondays are a bit of a problem with Paul Sheehan being relegated to the bench in favour of the TV guide.

15 years ago

that op-ed was reprinted from The Guardian, you should have seen the spanking he got in the comments section as an elitist prat dictating taste. Made me smile.

derrida derider
derrida derider
15 years ago

That schemozzle of an article made me want to scream “well if you don’t like it don’t listen to it, already!”. It’s not as though they force Schoenberg on you in lifts and supermarkets. And Queenan probably knows as little about music as he does about writing, anyway.

Yes, there are far better tenors around than Andrea Bocelli, and Andres Rieu ain’t much of a violinist (though I reckon – perhaps naively – that for all his showmanship Nigel Kennedy is). But if people enjoy them, what’s the problem?