The other day I was searching for music to use for my fundamentals class’ composition evaluations this semester. Basically, throughout the semester I give them links to ten different pieces on YouTube (ranging from medieval to modern) and ask them to write about the different elements of at least one of them. It’s a fun project, and I intentionally try to find things they haven’t necessarily encountered before. Some of the pieces they love (Shostakovich’s Symphony no. 11 is quite popular), while some they’re almost guaranteed to dislike (Messiaen’s Apparition de l’Eglise eternelle has few instant fans) and yet others divide the classroom (The intro to Philip Glass’ Einstein on the Beach gets a giant WTF?! every single time, but students can’t always agree whether it’s a good or bad WTF). But the important thing is that they are able to express why they love the piece, hate it, or are confused by it.
I thought having some Arvo Pärt might be nice for this first round of evaluations. So… off to YouTube! Where I reacquainted myself with this little gem:
If you didn’t make it past the first minute or so and stopped the video before the piano comes in, I wouldn’t blame you. I almost did the same thing the first time I listened to it. But it’s worth going back and checking out the whole thing, given there’s a significant mood shift that happens partway through that really captures people’s interest. The result is a soundscape that makes slightly pretentious people (pot, meet kettle) write words in the YouTube comment section like “sublime,” “cathartic,” and “astringent”—as if those words actually tell us something significant.
But it’s the comments section. On YouTube. And you know what that means.
Enter @$$holes, stage left.
And you thought politics was polarizing.
If you didn’t catch on at a first glance, there’s something very interesting going on in the above thread: Some people are trashing this piece for being too modern, while others are waylaying it for not being modern enough. And the people coming to Pärt’s defense don’t make it that far past “it’s about feelings, man!” and something something subjectivity of music. All in all, like many YouTube comment sections, there isn’t much room for constructive, worthwhile conversation. Just people tearing into an established composer, some even going far in other comments as to say that this doesn’t qualify as music at all.
Which brings me back to Marmite and what we can learn from it…
I promise I’m going somewhere with this. Really, I am!
If you’re not familiar with it, Marmite is a sticky fortified yeast paste that has the same texture as molasses. This British delicacy is very obscure to us Americans, but it has its uses in various delicacies, such as making a full-bodied vegan gravy. Our friends across the pond seem to love it, but Americans across the board who have tried it can’t stand it.
So of course I had to buy some and experience it for myself. It couldn’t be that bad, right? Right?
So I tried it both on its own in a teaspoon and spread on toast with butter, how people I know have recommend it.
I about gagged each time.
Imagine dissolving a cup of salt into an IPA, boiling off the alcohol until it’s down to a syrup, and then grinding up a handful of old B vitamins and stirring that into the mixture. That’s the closest I can come to describing how nasty Marmite is. It’s one of the most disgusting things I have ever put in my mouth. For the life of me, I can’t understand why the British people I see in cooking channels like it so much. And now I have a nearly full jar of it sitting in my pantry, waiting for me to find either some off-the-wall way to use it or someone insane to re-gift it to. I don’t understand how that sludge qualifies as actual food (Geez, David, tell us how you really feel about it).
And then something happened that made me reexamine my attitudes here… on one of the random YouTube cooking videos I was watching—yes, that’s a hobby of mine—there was an American and a Brit each talking about their respective cuisines. The British man, of course, made the American woman try Marmite (she obviously proceeded to gag). She then asked him a question. “So you guys like Marmite, and we hate it… are there any foods that we love that you guys can’t stand?”
The British man’s response after a second of thinking about it was, “your white gravy is disgusting, especially on your biscuits.”
Oh HELL no you didn’t!!!
I was dumbfounded. “Biscuits and gravy” is a Southern staple, one of the most decadent breakfasts you can have! I mean, I get that both “biscuits” and “gravy” are different foods in the UK, but come on, mate! It’s just a sausage bechamel over a savory scone, what’s not to love about that?! You’re bashing a glorious food the same way I’m bashing Marmi—
We’re all more influenced by our upbringing, education, and environment more so than we want to admit. For someone who has never encountered Marmite before, or biscuits and gravy, and has spent their entire life immersed in a different palate, a first taste of either is bound to be off-putting. And prolonged exposure can make such things an acquired taste. On top of that, sometimes all it takes to shatter one’s experience is experiencing someone else’s fresh one (for example, most Europeans think root beer tastes like mouthwash. Now that I’ve said that, you’re bound to at least notice the wintergreen taste in root beer next time you drink it, and it might very well ruin the beverage for you. Sorry about that, by the way).
It’s easy enough to see in food… but we overlook it in the arts.
To people who are encountering Pärt’s music for the first time, if they’ve been immersed in the music of Bach and Mozart for decades, the development of the music will seem quite lacking—and if it’s development in music you value, you’re of course going to write Pärt off. And if your ears have “acquired taste” to the likes of Berio and Ferneyhough, Pärt’s music will seem juvenilely vapid by comparison. But to people whose primary exposure to classical music is film scoring and/or the Romantic-period masters, there will be something fresh about Pärt’s music emotionally and structurally, and that will open the door for you to find yet another thing that’s new to discover.
Over time, lots of time, this is how several people found themselves growing to like composers like Schnittke, Penderecki, and Carter: degrees upon degrees of exposure. But if their exposure glossed over minimalists and tintinnabulists like Riley, Glass, Reich, and yes, Pärt, then their music will have all of the delight of an overly sweet alcoholic drink when they’re perpetually more in the mood for a dirty gin martini.
In short… music is subjective?
I hate boiling it down to that sentiment. There is objectively bad music out there. Teaching composition is all about getting over the “subjective” hurdle and examining what’s effective. But Pärt passes the “effective” test in spades, as evidenced if anything by the people who have had a genuine reaction both intellectually and emotionally by his music.
So does Ferneyhough. So does Schoenberg. So does Cage. So does Eric Whitacre. So does Hans Zimmer.
For that matter, so do various non-classical artists and songwriters like Lady Gaga, Dolly Parton, and Kendrick Lamar (who just won a Pulitzer, in case you didn’t know. Take that, Ben Shapiro. Rap is indeed music, like it or not).
Mentioning at least one of those composers or songwriters just made you roll your eyes the same way I rolled my eyes at Marmite. More than one of those names I cringed slightly at typing. Won’t say who, because that’s not exactly relevant, is it?
It’s okay to say you dislike a piece of music. It’s even okay to say you hate it. What’s not okay, is saying that the music or composer has no value—especially when you see a crowd of people who do experience said music’s value.
Even if you consider those people plebeians. And if you do, get over yourself, you supercilious snob. Because if I’m not a plebeian for liking biscuits and gravy over Marmite, then these music lovers aren’t plebeians for getting something valuable out of composers you’d rather not listen to.
And I have a class full of bright and talented budding musicians who I think are going to love this Pärt when it shows up on their evaluations.
Enjoy your next root beer.