Hipsters vs. Nerds
29 Mar 2011
Inside the Classics

Okay, this is profoundly silly, but too much fun not to link to: in response to an interesting but somewhat controversial article in New York magazine about the new generation of New York composers (including Judd,) Chicago-based composer and blogger Evan Kuchar decided to go back through history and tag famous composers as either “hipster” or “nerd.” Basically, this is style vs. substance, form vs. function. Handel’s a hipster, Bach’s a nerd, and Evan can’t decide what Beethoven is. Fun, right?

Why can’t we all just get along?

Part of the fun of an exercise like this to me is that it forces you to think about distinctions like “good” vs. “important,” or “pretty” vs. “satisfying.” I’ve always been a huge fan of Mendelssohn’s chamber music, and I’ve chosen to play and listen to much more of it in my life than I have, say, Haydn’s chamber music. But there’s no question that Haydn (nerd,) who wrote achingly gorgeous and meticulously crafted string quartets by the boatload, had a far broader impact on music as a whole than did Mendelssohn (hipster. And lest I be misunderstood, I’m not for a moment saying that I don’t like playing or listening to Haydn.)

So what does it say about me that, between two composers whose music I love and admire, I gravitate more to the one whose music is defined by passion and youthful exuberance than to the one whose brilliance over a sustained career literally created many of the musical structures that endured for more than a century? Am I just a sucker for a pretty melody? Am I using music primarily as an escape from a complex world, while others use it as an entry point?

I’m overstating all of this, of course, since I like both composers quite a lot. But I think distinctions like this go a long way towards explaining, just for instance, why Stravinsky turned out to be correct in believing that the broader world would sooner or later come around to his music, and Schönberg turned out to be less correct. It’s not that either of them weren’t brilliant composers – it’s just that Schönberg was the purest kind of nerd and Stravinsky had that hipster sheen to smooth the sharp edges in his music.

Of course, sheen isn’t enough on its own – there has to be substance behind it, and I know Judd has some thoughts of his own on this whole debate that he’ll be sharing with us shortly. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m off to spend the rest of the afternoon mentally dividing the entire Minnesota Orchestra into “hipster” and “nerd” piles.

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