If I don’t like it, the artist is stupid… right?

When I was a kid, proper musicians were defined as those qualified in and able to play ‘classical’ music, meaning stuff written in Europe from about the time of Bach through to the early twentieth century, after which music ceased (apparently) to require any competence or talent on the part of composer or performer. All other styles of music merely showed that whoever played them was too incompetent and useless to play classical.

The fact that classical music forms a very tiny part of the entire spectrum of musical styles, through time and across cultures, didn’t seem to enter into it. Certainly it’s an important element of the western musical tradition these days; but it’s not exclusive, nor is it the sole definition of calibre. There are other elements (jazz, blues, tone poems and so on) that have been just as influential and which are just as complex to write and perform.

Indeed, to my mind the winner in the ‘complex music, talented musician’ stakes isn’t classical – it’s jazz. What I mean is that it’s easy enough to play the hemidemisemiquaver runs in bars 4, 9 10 and 11 of Beethoven’s Sonata No. 8 in C minor, Op. 13 (‘Pathetique’) because they are even notes in 4/4 time, in a sequential run – really, a very fast scale. Now try Erik Morales ‘Whiplash’, which is in 7/4 time, but where the rhythm (the mix of 2 and 3-beat divisions in the 7/4 bar) keeps changing in a four-bar pattern. Or Frank Zappa’s ‘Son of Suzy Creamcheese’, which isn’t jazz as such, but which begins with four bars of 4/4, but then jumps to nine bars alternating 8/8 with 9/8, then three going 4/8, 5/8 and 6/8, before restarting at 4/4 again.

As for composition, I’d put Miles Davis, Zappa or Tuomas Holopainen in the same class as Beethoven or Liszt any day, just to mention a few in quite different genres. (Actually, I think Zappa is one of the great composers of all time).

Me practising the Carlos Santana Secret Chord Progression on my vintage Roland Alpha-Juno 2 (a – ptooey! – synthesiser, and thus also not a genuine musical instrument, apparently, by ‘classical’ standards).

It’s true in art, too; some people recognise only representational art as valid or genuine and sneer at abstractions which, supposedly, require no skill or talent to produce. Never mind that all are expressions of human endeavour and thought, or that – as Picasso pointed out – you had to first learn how to produce representational art before you could understand how to make the abstraction.

To me such an attitude is symptomatic of a wider human issue; the sense that if we don’t like some artistic endeavour; or disagree with a point of view, then it’s because the creator of it is ignorant or talentless. It’s underpinned by a sense of exclusivity and snobbery: ‘my views and tastes define what is sophisticated and intelligent, therefore anything that doesn’t meet them is crude and simple, and those challenging my tastes are too stupid to know what they are doing.’

Why do people do it? The emotional aspect of the response seems to point the way; I suspect a lot of it is to do with self-validation. People hook their sense of self-worth to some abstract concept – such as a particular taste in music or a specific academic belief or argument, or some other concept, art or idea – and personalise the response when that is challenged. It seems to be one of the fundamental frames by which humans behave generally; I suspect such behaviours, in various flavours, emerge in a lot of the ways we behave and think. I’ve used music and writing as a couple of examples, but there are many more.

Any thoughts on this? It is, shall we say, one of those big subjects.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2019

9 thoughts on “If I don’t like it, the artist is stupid… right?

  1. Fascinating subject. I know there are some forms of art that I just don’t ‘get’, particularly conceptual art and unmade beds. But maybe that says more about me than about the art! Similarly much ‘modern’ music.

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    1. I must admit there is quite a bit of music I don’t like, but also a very large range that I do – everything from medieval choral to baroque to (true) classical, e.g. 1760-1790 era, romantic, etc. I also enjoy what to some people seems an odd concatenation of modern styles, everything from jazz of all forms (which is pretty wide) through to metal (of many forms). It’s this latter that I use to underscore the idea that talent, skill and capability exist widely; a lot of metal (Euro-metal especially) is actually very complex to play and invokes unusual structures that aren’t those of the standard ‘four on the floor’ rock pattern. In terms of the visual arts – yeah, I do struggle to see myself quite what some of the artists are trying to do when presenting, e.g. rubbish piles in galleries as a statement. I am an impressionist fan myself.


  2. lol – music is obviously important to you, Matthew, but surely you agree that it’s a personal relationship?

    From what you’ve written, I think it’s the craft and artistry that speaks to you most. For me, it’s the emotion. I actually believe that music is an unrecognized ‘language’ that [can] speak directly to the listener’s feelings, bypassing the intellect entirely. Then again, that could simply be me generalising from my own experience of music.

    Music also seems to be a learned experience. For example, it’s taken me years to /learn/ to appreciate jazz, soul and some blues. By contrast, I was about five when I fell in love with big, orchestral classical music. I actually have a memory of dancing around our living room, arms flapping in time to something on the radio. I know it was classical and ‘big’, without singing, so I assume it was a symphony, but I don’t know which. The Nutcracker maybe?

    I guess you won’t be surprised to know that I really dislike atonal music. In fact, I really dislike most examples of modern ‘classical’ music. By contrast, I adore the soundtracks to some movies as well as the modern crop of game and epic trailer music, even when it’s discordant. To me, the discord makes emotional sense in the context of the entire piece – feelings of anger, hatred, fear contrasting with gentler emotions like sadness, or positive emotions like joy. Discord for its own sake though?

    The truly weird thing is that thousands of young people who’ve never been exposed to classical music, or hated it at school, absolutely love epic trailer music. They don’t seem to realise that it /is/ music in the classical form. Perhaps it’s because the composers of these ‘commercial’ forms of music intend to reach the masses, intend to elicit an emotional response, intend to reach the broadest audience possible.

    Does that make soundtrack music good or bad? I have no idea. I love it, but it is all personal, isn’t it?

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    1. Yes, absolutely – taste in music is (and by definition must) be personal, because the emotional response to it comes from within… and that’s individual. Which is good: if we all had the same tastes or agreed on what we liked, there wouldn’t be any variation. I think the appeal of movie music – much of which, indeed, draws on that very rich tradition of orchestral composition – is because it is very explicitly written to create an emotional engagement; and that’s then reinforced by the visual impact of the movie (or trailer) – the two work together sympathetically to create an extremely powerful effect in the viewer/listener. One of the reasons why the original ‘Star Wars’ blew me away when I first saw it was that John Williams soundtrack, which was really innovative for its day; and I suspect it was this that started off the trend for lush high-budget compositions of really high quality that we have today.

      On that note, incidentally, if you get a chance, it’s worth checking out John Barry’s ‘Star Crash’ soundtrack. This was an execrably silly Italian ‘spaghetti sci-fi’ homage to You Know What from 1978, starring David Hasselhof, but the orchestral score was sublime, to me so much so that its quality jarred with the silliness of the movie itself. Apparently the score now has a life of its own, outside the movie. Here’s a sample: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=n8PeRe4Yc6M


      1. I absolutely love Launch Adrift, so much so that I just listened to the whole soundtrack. Some of the other tracks will probably grown on me, but none with the power of Adrift. It’s almost as if the rest of the tracks are from a completely different theme?
        I’ve got Adrift on repeat. 🙂
        Btw thank you so much. The name of John Barry meant nothing to me until I started looking for other music he’d written. Then it was jaw-hits-ground time. He’s composed music to some of my favourite films. I’m always looking for new music to write to.
        I’ll do you a swap. Have a listen to some of Jo Blankenburg’s music:

        His most recent stuff is featured but you can try all of it via the ‘Music’ tab up the top.

        Oh and I totally agree re soundtracks! The combination of visuals and highly emotional music is extremely powerful.
        Have you by any chance seen Aliens 3? The final scene combines Christian symbols – the cross, mother & child – with the most achingly beautiful score. Even if you don’t like sci-fi, it’s worth it just for that one scene. 🙂


        1. Glad you liked it – ‘Launch Adrift’ is by far the best of the themes in that movie – truly sublime (unlike the scene it’s attached to, which is inoffensive but, as I recall, basically silly when set against the music… to my tastes, true for the whole score, really). John Barry is the genius behind a lot of movie music! I had no idea myself until I checked… I gather he wrote a lot of the James Bond scores over time, although not the signature theme, apparently. A very talented composer. I’ve checked out Jo Blankenberg – good stuff! I did see ‘Aliens 3’, years ago on first release, but cannot recall the soundtrack, I will look it up.


          1. So pleased you like Jo Blankenburg. He’s one of my favourite modern composers.
            Tried to find a video clip of the Aliens 3 climax but no luck. Did find the music to it though. It’s called Adagio and reaches its emotional climax from about the 2 min. mark onwards:

            Liked by 1 person

  3. Nice to see Tuomas Holopainen getting a mention. I’ve never read or seen any reference to an external composer arranging Nightwish’s orchestral parts, so I presumed he did it all himself, which is staggering. (Ghost Love Score still the pinnacle of his creativity.) And by the way, I saw Nightwish live in Manchester last December.

    You might want to check out another Finnish rock/classical composer called Antti Martikainen and a piece called Kalevala.

    And on the subject of talent outside the classical world I’ve been listening to a band for a while now called Scar Symmetry and it got me thinking about guitar playing. In the past there were one or two guitarists noted for their dexterity eg Ritchie Blackmore, but these days it seems like every metal guitarist is a genius. The hours of practice and dedication at every level of the genre seems limitless. Where do these people get the time to practice?

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    1. I am very jealous you got to see ‘Nightwish’ live. Floor Jansen is such an amazing vocalist. And ‘Ghost Love Score’ is a stunningly complex piece of music! The time signature jumps between 5/8 and 6/8, 3/8, 2/4 and 4/4, the key shifts from D minor to F minor, with progressions of up to eight chords. I’m not sure Holopainen orchestrated it, that might have been James Shearman, but don’t quote me on that. Either way it’s an epic piece of music and Holopainen is genius.

      I have no idea how these people find the time to practise. I spent years and years learning music and damn it’s hard!

      I also get the impression that being a professional musician is a lot of very hard work these days, but where the financial returns aren’t a lot better than you might expect from a normal ‘day job’ on salary, and where they go home and have ordinary suburban lives like the rest of us. I have friends in the Netherlands who tell me that every so often they see the lead vocalist for ‘Within Temptation’ in the local supermarket, grocery shopping like everybody else – she, her husband and kids apparently live nearby. It’s all very ordinary – so much for my imagining that a career in music results in having one’s own private jet, owning football teams etc. Of course I suppose the reality is that most musicians don’t actually make a living and end up finding a good job, on the day shift at the Utility Muffin Research Kitchen, pooting little icing rosettas on to the muffins…

      I will check out Antti Martikainen.


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