The Problem with Interesting Music

By Patrick Flanagan (PopTech 2010)

Interesting works, for all their cerebral trappings, are easily packaged and delivered in the marketplaces that matter for composers (I’m focusing on composers and academic music because it’s the world I know best.) A piece that performs data sonification by mapping train schedules to musical notes offers a nice “Aha” moment when you realize “Oh, there goes the F train. Neat.” These pieces fire the cognitive pleasure neurons like grasping the predictably counter-intuitive argument of a Malcolm Gladwell think piece. And because they can be grasped quickly, especially with a little prodding from a program note or verbal explanation, they are ideal for job talks and grant proposals. With just a little explanation and a short snippet of video, an audience can get the piece because the piece is reducible to its concept. Unlike some behemoth of absolute music devoted to its own formal development, interesting pieces make for great elevator pitches.


There are worse problems to suffer than an abundance of interesting works of music and art. Still, every time I hear an interesting data sonification piece or novel interdisciplinary collaboration, I’m reminded of the gap that separates them from the music that made the strongest impression on me when I was learning guitar and later composition. The sublimity of late Beethoven string quartets, the searing spirituality of A Love Supreme, the cortex-melting stupidity of AC/DC’s Back in Black (no seriously, more on that in the future)–you can’t describe any of these pieces as interesting. They have larger (and in the latter case dumber) ambitions. I wonder if any 16 year old has ever been motivated to take up an instrument or composing because he heard something that was so interesting he had just to learn how to make interesting music too. I doubt it. Let’s just please not let the dance music producers find out that their beats are supposed to be interesting.