Music and the Hugos: Accounting for Taste
by Alpheus Madsen
While I was in my early days, I fell in love with what I would now call “Symphonic” music, but what most other people would call “Classical”. I love the rich tones, the combinations of melody, and the wide range of emotion; I love the music that tells stories (such as “Symphonie Fantastique”, by Hector Berlioz) and music that is cerebral–music for its own sake–such as most of the works of Johann Brahams. And I wanted to be able to compose that music, too! (I still do, actually; I just don’t have the time to do everything I want to do…) With that desire, I decided to earn a Music Minor while in College.
Now, I have a confession I must make: much of the music I love, I was introduced to in my Music Appreciation and Music History classes. It is also, incidentally, why I call the music I love “Symphonic”, because “Classical” music is pretty much limited to the time period of the lives of Mozart, Hayden and Beethoven, while “Symphonic” includes Baroque and Romantic periods…as well as Rachmaninoff, and Movie Scores. Indeed, I say “Symphonic” because I specifically want to include movie scores, because movie scores are particularly what I have come to love in music.
The funny thing about earning a music minor, however, is that I wasn’t just exposed to the “Symphonic” music I loved. I was also introduced to “Atonal” music: music that deliberately took our expectations of harmony, chordal progressions, and rhythm, and threw it all out the window, in favor of experimentation. Arnold Schoenberg, Charles Ives, and John Cage were the leaders of this movement. Sergei Rachmaninoff was technically a member of this movement, too, although he eschewed atonal music, and insisted that he was born in the wrong era: he should have been a part of the Romantic era years before. Rachmaninoff was despised because he refused to reject tonality. He was also despised for being popular with his audience!
This isn’t to say that atonal music was completely useless. Schoenberg composed a lot of music for movies–apparently, it’s fantastic for inducing tension and fear in the audience. And it can be a bit of an acquired taste. At the end of a recital where I suffered through an atonal piece that I would describe as the warblings of a dying bird, I remember one of my professors telling this singer that she thought the piece was very beautiful. At another time, I remember two professors discussing a piece by Schoenberg that was written to describe life in the ghetto of Warsaw…and how a class that was required to listen to that piece over and over again, couldn’t believe that the piece they listened to at the end of the semester was the same one that they listened to at the beginning. (And no, I was not a part of that class, so I can only imagine what it was like!)
So, what does all of this have to do with the Hugos? It’s a matter of taste.
As I have looked over the controversy over Sad Puppies, I have seen many comments to the effect of, “I don’t see what your problem is. Don’t you like work X? What about work Y? Don’t you think Z deserves an award?” Well, no, I don’t like works X and Y, and I especially didn’t think Z deserved an award–at least, not a Hugo. Just because you like those works, doesn’t mean that I would. Tastes differ, and you shouldn’t expect me to like a work because you do. Indeed, if I started asking some of the same questions about the Sad Puppy works, what would your reaction be? Don’t they deserve recognition, too, might I ask?
The problem is even deeper than that, though: in order for me to appreciate “atonal” science fiction, I have to acquire the taste for it…but I don’t want to spend the time to acquire that taste! I enjoy science fiction because it explores new ideas, generally recognizes the intrinsic value of the individual, celebrates heroes, has a sense of awe and wonder, and has a generally positive outlook towards the future. Granted, I don’t mind the occasional dystopia (we need to remember that our actions can lead to dire consequences)…but I don’t want to be hit over the head, again and again, with such things.
(As an aside: this is why I won’t want to become a Graduate Student to study Music. I want to learn to compose music, and I want to compose that music in the styles of John Williams, Danny Elfman, Rachmaninoff, Berlioz, Brahms, Beethoven, Mozart, Hayden, and Bach! Even if my music will never become popular, if it languishes, I want it to languish because I cannot refine my skill to match the levels of these giants, and not because I deliberately sabotaged it for the sake of “art” and “academics”.)
Even beyond that, I want science fiction to thrive! In order to thrive, it has to be popular–at least, it has to be popular enough, that authors can make a living–and “atonal” science fiction isn’t doing that. Indeed, “atonal” art has almost killed off art, it has certainly nearly killed off “Symphonic” music (except in movie scores, heh), and it has pretty much killed off modern literature and poetry (I have yet to figure out how “free verse” is all that much different from “prose”). I do not want to see science fiction to fall victim to “atonality” as well!
And, incidentally, this is why the Sad Puppies will likely win in the long, long game: the Hugos are supposed to be the democratic “We are fans and this is what we like” awards, after all, and the Sad Puppy campaign’s initial purpose was to demonstrate that the Hugos have been controlled over these last few years by a small cabal of insular voters…and that, because of this, it is surprisingly easy to tip over the apple cart with a simple “get out the vote” campaign! It won’t matter how that insular cabal attempts to change the rules of voting, because our message is clear: “Here are works that are worthy of your time, and here is how you vote for them. Now go, enjoy, and tell all your friends!”
So let us go forth, and show that perhaps there is accounting for taste after all..