Matthew Shlomowitz on his piece Lecture About Bad Music

sandris murins
25 composers
Published in
11 min readApr 18, 2024

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Read my interview with expanded music composer Matthew Shlomowitz on his piece Lecture About Bad Music. The Lecture about Bad Music utilises research from various disciplines to examine the underlying processes involved in forming aesthetic opinions. Through musical examples and simulations of psychological studies, the question of whether music can be inherently bad is explored by Matthew Shlomowitz and his ensemble Plus Minus. The text version of interview was created by Armands Stefans Sargsuns.

Can you give a short background of the piece?

The Ultima Festival in Oslo commissioned the piece. It was for Plus Minus Ensemble, which I am a part of and is based in London. We first played the piece in 2015. I have also performed it with other ensembles around the world, and the lecture part has also been performed in Switzerland by the saxophonist Markus Weiss where he performed ‘me’ (the text is written in the first person perspective of me), which I thought was a very nice and interesting performance.

Watch full interview:

What is the setup of the piece?

It is a 45-minute piece for me as the lecturer alongside a quartet of violin, synthesiser, electric guitar and clarinet. There is one moment in the piece where three of the musicians have a brief speaking role, and there is one moment when I join the ensemble and played a drum machine.

What is the main concept of the piece?

This is the first in a series of lecture pieces I made. I also made Lecture about Listening to Music and another with dancer Shila Anaraki and violinist Aisha Orazbayeva called Lecture About Sad Music and Happy Dance. This first one came about for a few unrelated reasons. First, I was reading a lot of literature on, not so much bad music, but more the question of aesthetic judgement. That is to say: what is going on when we say things like, “I like that piece of music”. I was enjoying reading literature on the topic for pleasure, and was also getting some ideas and began to think about how I could make a piece on it. In particular, I encountered either real experiments and thought experiments in the literature and I thought I would like to realize those experiments on stage. For example, the piece begins with a staging of a 1903 experiment by the German psychologist Max Meyer.

Secondly, I had encountered a bunch of lecture pieces in the previous few years, most notably in the dance field. The two most important people there would be Jérôme Bel who has made a series of lecture pieces, for instance, one called Véronique Doisneau, which is a personal favourite of mine. Also, I saw a piece by Xavier Le Roy in London called Product of Circumstances which is him lecturing about his experience moving from being a scientist to a dancer. It is somewhere in between a performance and a lecture piece. I was excited by those pieces.

Last of all, around this time I also was just getting increasingly irritated by the way experts talk about music. To give an example, I was watching an orchestral concert at the (BBC) Proms — the London Summer Music Festival, and there were two experts on the stage talking about a Sibelius symphony that was about to be played. One of the experts told a really you know inane story about how Sibelius had broken a finger, or something like that, a really totally irrelevant story, and that was their contribution. The second expert kept on saying that Sibelius was inspired when he wrote this one. I just found the whole thing so extremely annoying. It seems to me that there was some kind of unwritten rule in classical music that it is so amazing and ineffable, that we are just passing time as the chairs were set up for the next piece. I do not think that is true. I think that we can talk about music just like we can have wonderful scientists or historians on television talking, bringing out ideas and sharing those ideas with the general public. I think the same thing is true for music, so that was also an aim of this piece. I really wanted to share the literature I learned about aesthetic judgement.

Does the piece have a central message?

No. Perhaps one of the questions is if this is art or a lecture. I suppose if it was a proper lecture, it might have a clear message and conclusion or at least rehearse conclusions. I think my piece does avoid that, so it is artistic in that sense. I am being crude here because, of course, we have artistic pieces that do have clear messages, and we have more ambiguous lectures. My piece does not have clear conclusions, but it does pose many interesting questions. I say that without modesty because they are not my questions, they are the questions I read in scholars’ writing in this field.

Watch the Lecture about Bad Music

Can you give an example of one of the questions?

One of the areas that is much discussed in the piece is a phenomenon known as the exposure effect in psychology. When we encounter something for the first time, something foreign, we are unlikely to like it, but when we have repeated exposure to that thing, we might find that our evaluation of that thing goes in a positive direction. The obvious interpretation is that we are becoming familiar with accepting the unfamiliar and finding appreciation. However, as I explore it in the lecture, other things may be playing out. It might simply be that at the start we were unable to predict what was going to happen next and as we continue to listen to it a bunch of times, it changes. I am thinking of, let’s say, a late 1940s Boulez piano piece which at first seems random and kind of nonsensical, but then we listen to it repeatedly and increasingly think ‘Oh, it really does make sense’, but that feeling of sense could be an illusion. It simply could be that we are becoming familiar with the succession of notes and our brain is, in some Darwinian fashion, rewarding us with pleasure when we are making successful predictions. I do not have a conclusion about that, but I find that a compelling theory that I wanted to share, that the assumptions about why we might start to like something through repeated listening might be based on a fallacy.

What is the logical sequence?

The piece is constructed through a series of topics or areas. After introducing the exposure effect, I move on to explore ancient notions of classical proportions to see if they might hold some value or truth for us: why we like certain things and do not like other things. Later, I explore cultural issues and psychological issues surrounding how personal identity formation may be playing a role might in our evaluations of artworks. The piece sort of tours around different ways of thinking. One could say it is interdisciplinary in the sense that I consider the matter of aesthetic evaluation from work being done in a range of academic fields, such as psychology, sociology and philosophy.

Was it your initial intention to have a lecture?

I think I knew from the start that I wanted the work to sit in an ambiguous place between academic lecture and performance art piece. One way perhaps it really is more of a performance than an academic lecture is that most of the time the musical examples come before the discussion. In a normal lecture, we have something explained to us and then we hear the example to prove or illustrate the point. Here I first present the thing and the audience has probably no idea what the discussion topic will be and I like that confusion. I also like the fact that the audience first has contact with the thing aesthetically before I frame it under a certain theoretical lens. Another way in which it is not like a usual lecture is that there parts where the text is spoken over the music.

What was the composing process like?

The process for this is unusual in the sense that the first six months were spent reading the literature on the topic of aesthetic judgement, writing notes down on what I thought were the most interesting points. And while reading I was always looking for examples and topics that I could stage. Beyond that, it was a conventional composition. One thinks about what the idea is going to be, a great way to start, how you can move on from there and how you can come back to things.

What was the main function of you giving a lecture?

Good question. The other two lecture pieces are written in the third person, but this one is written in the first person, as me. That is part of the piece, hopefully in a humorous way, is my quest to try and write bad music. And the joke is that it is actually quite hard to write truly bad music. It allowed me to discuss the thought process of writing intentionally bad music, and poses questions like, ‘How could I make this worse?’ I think the pieces can be a bit intentionally annoying to the audience. For example, I say things like, ‘You will have started to enjoy this piece on the third listen’. This is a ridiculous claim, but even though it is ridiculous, it is also possibly true. While the statements I make may be satirical or ironic, it was also my rule that everything made can be taken at face value and is a reasonable claim. I do not say anything about what I think about the ideas. It doesn’t matter what I think as I think all the idea are worthy of talking about, but I think there is also a productive tension in the audience knowing what I think.

What did the piece look like when you were not the lecturer?

When Markus Weiss was in my role, he decided to perform it as if he was me. There were two choices: we could either rewrite the text in the third person or he could deliver it presenting he was me, which we thought was more fun and interesting.

Can you imagine the piece without the lecture?

No, I think it would make no sense and I think the music is crap. I like the music with the text, but it needs the text! After the show, people come up and tell me that they like the music in the piece, that I told them they did not like and the opposite, people say that the claims I make are not true, that they would like the music without the text around it, but my strong feeling is that the text is essential to bring the music. It really activates the music in a way that without the text it would be pretty empty.

Would it work as a pure lecture?

I want it to be played in concert halls. I want to do in the space where we do an aesthetic evaluation and I like that is a bit ambiguous about whether it is art or a lecture.

How did the piece shape when collaborating with the ensemble?

I can say two things about that. First, we spent four days preparing the piece before the first performance. I think in those four days many little changes were made to the piece. Of course, you can plan as much as you can from your bedroom on your computer, but when you get into the room and you feel it in the room, it is different. I remember well that the five of us videotaped one of our dress performances and then watched it together to discuss things. We talked about whether it got visually static and whether I should move at a certain point just to create a certain interest, so we collaborated in that kind of way.

Second, while I was composing the piece, I was anxious about the role of the musicians and I wanted to find a way to animate them by giving them a presence that at one moment extended beyond the musical function. At this one moment, about two-thirds of the way through the piece, three of them go forward and make statements about music. They are scripted, so they are not really their views. It is hard to explain without watching. The main point is that it was a kind of theatrical strategy to extend their role and create a moment that was completely unlike all the other moments.

Did you use any compositional principles?

There are lots of very different kinds of music in the piece, so there is not one answer. It was always about finding the right principle for each piece. I actually discussed this in the piece, the kind of logic of how I put together a piece to make it as bad as I could possibly make it and the successes and failures of my strategies for doing that. I did not have one overarching principle, that is for sure, but with each piece, I tried to find a good contrast between it and the music of each part and then the best logic for each given piece.

What have you learned during the creation of this piece?

In terms of the topic, what I learned is what I share in the piece. These were some of the most interesting ideas I encountered in my reading. Perhaps the most important book was Sweet Anticipation by David Huron. It is one of my favourite books about music and many of the ideas that I am engaging with in the piece come from that book. I think one of the interesting things about the book is that it is not about contemporary music, but there is a section towards the end of it which explores the question of why classical music in the twentieth century never really gained a big purchase among classical music audiences. He says that the most common explanation for it is that the music is too atonal and ugly. He thinks that is wrong. Of course, ugly is subjective and there are many musical traditions around the world that sound ugly to ears enculturated in the West. Huron argues the problem that the fact that listeners cannot enter into predicting what will happen next in the music of Brian Ferneyhough, for example, is what leaves listeners disengaged.

He argues that listener‘s get chemically released pleasure when we make successful predictions, and that is missing when we listen to such music, at least the first ten times. Huron places this point in an evolutionary context, suggesting that while our capacities have not evolved for art, these capacities are nonetheless harnessed by art, and our capacity to engage in expectation is one such example. I am not saying I agree with this theory because I am not an expert, but I find it plausible and exciting and something that I could connect with my own experiences.

What would be your suggestions for someone who would like to make a similar lecture-style piece?

Do it! I would be positive about the idea. I think you just need a good topic. I was lucky that I stumbled on a good topic, but I had other ideas for other lecture pieces which I gave up on because they just were not good for staging. A good topic must be good in itself. It has to be an interesting topic but also good in the way that it presents you with material to stage in a concert hall with an ensemble. There are various questions like ‘Who are you as a lecturer? What is your lecturing character or style? Is it fixed or is it going to change across the piece?’ These are fun things to think about — the style, character or register. I could say many more things, but I will be glad if there are more lecture pieces coming. I find it totally interesting.

Photo:

Source: screenshot from Yootube video of Lecture about Bad Music

Matthew Shlomowitz makes music and performance pieces. He have developed three projects: Letter Pieces, open score pieces combining physical action and music; Popular Contexts, which combine recognisable recordings with instrumental music; and a series of lecture-pieces addressing aesthetic issues. He teaches at University of Southampton, and co-direct Plus Minus Ensemble with Mark Knoop and Vicky Wright.

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