Strange Imaginary Animals: Anti-Intellectualism and Gordon Fitzell’s “Violence”

In which bold statements are proclaimed, atonal piano chords are arpeggiated, and Daniel dances to outrageously trashy pop music late into the night.

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To my dear reader,

Being a pretentious asshole laboring under delusions of grandeur has many advantages. It allows me to speak openly. It allows me to believe in my actions’ worth. It even allows me to write inane, self-obsessed blog posts about life and music as if I have any authority, which I certainly do, thank you very much. But among these blessings is the fact that I can listen to both outrageously trashy pop and outrageously avant-garde art music, and enjoy both equally. But as much as I adore pop music (and my housemates might attest at ungodly hours of the night, I will blast that shit like it’s my salvation) it does not often intellectually stimulate and challenge me the way modern art music does – demonstrating a certain un-American lack of anti-intellectualism.

“How brash of you to say such bold statements!” says you.

“Is your blog? No? Then shut the fuck up,” says I.

Stop distracting me.

Modern art music – drawing from the highly respected legacy of composers like Stravinsky, Schoenberg and Ives, and supported by its academic status – will usually only appeal to those already familiar with those topics. While those already in the know might listen to a modern art music piece, mulling over its intricacies and obscure musical references like fine wine, those outside will spit it out and say “What is this garbage?” They will feel like the work’s composer, performers and intended audience are lording their technical knowledge over them, sniggering about the musically illiterate masses who cannot understand such fine art.

Pop music – driven by profit and perpetuated by the all-American machine of capitalism – is a musical manifestation of this anti-intellectualism. It’s made to be understandable the first time. It shouldn’t need technical knowledge to be enjoyed. It’s made for the masses. Nobody should be able to do any elitist sniggering about the musical construction of Demi Lovato’s “I Really Don’t Care.”

Take, for example, a recent discovery of mine: the chamber work Violence, by Canadian composer Gordon Fitzell, as performed by the ensemble Eighth Blackbird on its CD Strange Imaginary Animals. Opening with a rippling, atonal piano arpeggio, the work explores the sonic landscapes of its instruments, intertwining string pizzicatos with the sighs of woodwind glissandos and the sudden woosh of jet whistling. Many find such musical language too cerebral, and so its layered intricacies drive others away even as they pull me in. There’s significant anti-intellectualism here, and it’s understandable why; few are well versed in atonal music, instrumental extended technique, or the modern art music scene in general. Nobody likes to feel dumb.

Yet despite the high regard I grant technically complex music, I don’t believe that is the only measure of music’s worth. I believe that music can be valuable for its cultural significance, its enthralling performance, or even its danceability – a trait which Violence arguably fails to have. I will be the first to admit that my tastes in pretty much everything reveal a ludicrously engorged sense of self and a love for intellectualism that will make you nauseous. But I will also be the first to declare that too many people on both sides say that one way of thinking is better than the other, that there is only one way for music to be worthwhile.

I am certain that there is more than one way. And, as we’ve established, I think that I’m pretty hot shit… so take my word for it. I did.

With all due respect,

Daniel Wolfert

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