Classical Music Critics on the Future of Music
A 10-Day AJ Topic Blog (July
28-August 7, 2004)
Tuesday, July 27
Note to Readers: This was a 10-day
topic blog that tackled the question: What/where/are the Big Ideas in classical
music? To read the full question in full, go here. This
blog involved 13 prominent American music critics:
Charles Ward Houston
Scott Cantrell Dallas Morning News
Kyle Gann Village Voice
Anne Midgette The New York Times
Justin Davidson Newsday
John Rockwell The New York Times
Andrew Druckenbrod Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Greg Sandow The Wall Street Journal
Wynne Delacoma Chicago Sun-Times
John von Rhein Chicago Tribune
Kyle MacMillan Denver Post
Alex Ross The New Yorker
Joshua Kosman San Francisco Chronicle
Then on August 7, at the Aspen Music Festival
- David Patrick Stearns of the Philadelphia Inquirer joined Midgette, Sandow and
Kosman for a live debate of the question. That session was recorded, and we hope
to have edited audio streams of it by this fall. - Douglas McLennan,
Taking Issue With The Question
posted @ 2:53 pm
Not for some postmodern heck of it, but I must
take issue with the question itself. I think the idea of unifying styles is
misleading and even untrue, historically. I think the better term is "language,"
and even that has never been as unified or unifying as the history and theory
books suggest. The language of art music in the Middle Ages was that of
monophony, whether a single voice or unison singing, in either sacred chant or
secular song. But plainchant or trouvere/troubadour song, respectively, existed
in many different styles, rites and variants.
The same could be said of the Renaissance, where the common language was
polyphony, but different schools produced alternate sounds, text setting,
timbres, etc. In the baroque era, it is not as if the famous Monteverdi and
Artusi controversy over style led to later composers adhering just
to Monteverdi's compositional aesthetic. And the common practice period
witnessed a pan-European adherence to tonality, however national styles differed
so greatly as to belie any gravitating to one big concept of music.
I guess I am getting carried away with examples, but there are so many.
People are always looking to codify, list, label and define the world
(especially in hindsight) in order to wrap our heads around large constructs,
but it's never that simple.
So, with that buzzkill behind me, I must say I am thrilled there isn't a
major idea, language or style dominating the scene these days.
It's one thing to teach harmony, counterpoint, theory and compositional
techniques to students, to let them know what has come before and to help them
understand what makes the standout works of the past so exemplary. But why force
their vision into a web of rules and shoulds? Few creative artists benefit from
a muse who is a schoolmarm.
Much good a dominating presence serial composition was for the world.
Composers who broke out of that mold and now write non-12-tone music discuss the
dodecaphonic years with a ghastly remembrance usually reserved for victims of
political oppression. "When I was going to Princeton in the '60s, it was so much
in the air that you had to be [twelve tonal]," David Del Tredici told me
last year in a interview. "No one said it; it was just the environment -- that
is really powerful."
Even twelve tone's grip on the musical world was less than was thought at the
time. Every day, it seems we find out about composers who continued writing
tonal music of some sort, not to mention the radical departures of Harry
Partch, Morton Feldman and George Crumb.
Now listeners and composers have much more to choose from. Composers today
can create their own language without repercussions. There are certain stylistic
threads, of course, from Coplandesque to post-minimalist, but composers can
really establish their own language as much as style, and then experiment
further. An excellent composer in my city, the University of Pittsburgh's
Eric Moe, has established his own diatonic, but not necessarily tonal
language that is unmistakably his although it synthesizes many techniques.
If it is broken, don't fix it. Let works stand or fall on their own merit,
not propped by formulaic conventions. Just listening without the incessant need
to judge music against a central theoretical trunk can be a liberating
experience. Sure, today's multiplicity of styles and languages can make it
harder on critics when writing about music, but it is well worth it.
I am sure that a new dominating force will come that will limit what is
acceptable for composers. It's the way history transpires. We should be thankful
we have this hiatus.
By Kyle Gann
posted @ 2:59 pm
The question we’ve been asked is: Why is there
no big musical idea that dominates music at the moment? Asking me this is
somewhat like asking Mother Teresa why there are no poor people anymore. I’ve
spent 22 years chronicling the latest phases and fads in music as they go by:
art rock, free improv, postminimalism, totalism, East/West fusions, political
music, interactive computer music, MAX/MSP, DJ-ing as an artform, etc. So I
suppose what the question boils down to is: Gee, Kyle Gann, why is it that
you’ve had no impact whatever?
I do think there are some reasons for a widespread perception that
there are no attractive musical ideas anymore, no common language, no styles, no
-isms. But the perception is not so much in the music as in the limited
imagination of music critics and those watching the music scene. Many believe,
to put it succinctly, that musical changes in the future have to be analogous to
changes in the past, and therefore if the same kind of changes aren’t
happening, then there must not be any changes. But here are a few ways in which
today’s music scene differs from the past:
1. Throughout the 20th century, each new movement represented an advance in
complexity and abstraction over the last. Serialism brought that process to a
dead end. Today there are plenty of ideas that dozens and dozens of composers
gravitate toward, but they tend not to be difficult to understand, often more
physical than conceptual. There’s an expectation that the next big idea must be
some sort of composing system, but that line of thought came to an end, at least
2. Relatedly, one thing that composers of my generation have almost
universally lost patience with is the presumption of historical inevitability.
The idea that 12-tone music was the inevitable music of the future and that
anyone who didn’t learn to write it was “useless” (Pierre Boulez’s word) left a
bitter taste in our mouths. So if your criterion for the new musical idea is
that it has some kind of mandate behind it, you’re not going to find it - we’re
proud to say.
3. Many critics, following
the Classical Script, keep looking for “the next big idea” in the realm of
orchestra music. This is like an old dog on guard at a foxhole for years after
the fox slipped out the back way and moved to another state. The new ideas that
attract today’s composers are manifested in computer music and chamber music,
the latter often involving unconventional, composer-led ensembles. Those who
write for orchestra tend to be the more conservative composers, and even those
who aren’t conservative have to pare down and simplify their style when they
write for orchestra due to the medium’s hidebound traditions and extreme
rehearsal limitations. Even John Adams, the most successful American composer
for orchestra of our time, has said publicly over and over that the interesting
music today isn’t for orchestra. Nonetheless, I don’t believe there is a force
on earth that could make most music critics go look for it anywhere else. Like
that old dawg, they’ve got it in their heads that the New Idea will make its way
into orchestra music, and that’s where they’re going to look.
So what are the big new ideas? Well, my perception is that, most importantly,
there have been two major movements that have grown out of minimalism, which I
and others call postminimalism and totalism. Both of these are very widespread
movements, especially postminimalism, which has dozens of adherents from Hawaii
to Florida and from Maine to Mexico. I’ve got a discography of postminimal
and totalist music you can look at, and a 1999 article about how the
movements originated. I wrote an article defining
postminimalism for New Music Box, and another defining
totalism. In my book American Music in the Twentieth Century, I
discuss the educational and cultural
conditions that led composers into these particular styles, and you can read
that part on my web site. And these aren’t the only farflung movements out
there, just the ones that I’ve studied the most.
Of course, you can say, and some will, that postminimalism and totalism
haven’t attracted much public attention: ergo, they are not the Big New Ideas.
But there are a lot of reasons that new music doesn’t reach the public today,
and inherent attractiveness of the music is not the most telling. After all,
Le Marteau wasn’t much of a box-office hit, but it put serialism on the
map, just because back then people took new musical movements seriously. Today’s
postminimal and totalist composers can’t get their CDs into stores, can’t find
distribution. The music’s there, and tons of it is really attractive. The big
ideas it manifests aren’t perceived because so few people hear enough new music
to realize the similarities among so many young and mid-career composers. By and
large, it is not the composers who are to blame for that, nor (quite often) the
There's my opening salvo, anyway.
A blurry patchwork
posted @ 3:42 pm
"The Next Big Thing?" Ah, how we journalists love to find and name
What are the trends today? Mainly fragmentation: all those web
sites, all those cable channels, all those phone companies. The problem with
life today, as my mother has observed, is that there are too many choices.
And--dare I say it?--all those composers. Surely there are more people today
calling themselves composers than at any previous time in history. The most
devoted of us "professional listeners" hear only a tiny fraction of new music.
How can we presume to pontificate on trends?
But this has been a pet peeve I've long had with at least some colleagues. I
remember Michael Walsh, when Time magazine still had a classical music
critic, naming the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra the best orchestra in the
country. Had he heard the St. Louisians often enough, and the competition often
enough, to pass so sweeping a judgement? Come, now. For that matter, how would
one pick "the best orchestra?" Or "the greatest conductor," as Newsweek
once dubbed Herbert von Karajan. (As Anna Russell used to say of The
Ring, "I'm not making this us, you know."
The biggest problem for composers today, it seems to me, is that we
all have so much music in our ears so much of the time. Amid this
welter of music past and present, it must be harder than at any previous time to
find one's own compositional voice. There are those, I realize, who toot the
horn of eclecticism, but is anyone out there (apart from, maybe Lyric Opera of
Chicago) prepared to pump for William Bolcom as a great composer? A skilled and
clever one, okay--but great?
Yes, Bach brought together elements from the musical cultures of Germany,
Italy and France. He wrote organ chorale preludes modeled on 16th-century choral
music. So did Brahms. But somehow they found ways to set their own seals, to
refresh their models.
So much of the newer orchestral music I hear sounds like rehashed gestures
from early 20th-century composers who did it better the first time. (Can you say
"Lowell Liebermann?") The newer American operas getting the most
performances--Mark Adamo's Little Women, Jake Heggie's Dead Man
Walking--seem almost willfully impersonal. If there's a trend in newer
American operas, it's nondescript, free-floating arioso.
American politics has become vehemently partisan, but--at least to an
observer--our musical scene seems to be a blurry patchwork. Composers who get
performed, at least in the admittedly conservative Dallas/Fort Worth scene, tend
to be the ones that "get along," that "play well with others." The vehement
partisanship of the young Boulez now seems unimaginably quaint.
But if there's no "big thing" in composition, the same is true with
performers. No pleiad of pianists dominates the scene as Horowitz and Rubinstein
once did (at least in the US). How many typical symphony concertgoers could name
even five conductors?
Ours seems to be an age of leveling. And of relativism: one thing's as good
as another. Elitism is a dirty word. Critics are hanging on by the skin of their
By John Rockwell
posted @ 4:31 pm
Big ideas tend to be backward projections. At any point in music history
there have been controversies and warring schools and pedants to pronounce that
some composers weren't even composing music at all. Right now, we certainly seem
to be in flux, but there seems to me to be several points around which a new
"big idea," or big ideas, could coalesce -- or have coalesced.
One is the connection between the Western tradition and various forms of what
we are told is the politically incorrect term world music. This flows all which
way, of course: Western composers being influenced by exotic cultures, exotics
being influenced by us, exotics being influenced by other exotics (e.g.,
Bollywood music being big in non-Indian Africa).
Another is the high-low connection, about which enough said already, at least
for now. Another is the impact of technology. Yet another is our shifting
attitude toward the various forms of musical modernism, the old uptown-downtown
wars being easily perceived now as having been struggles between variants of
I think big ideas are still very much possible, but I would challenge one
aspect of this mega-blog's written premise. I don't think ideas coalesce (among
whom?), and then that they gain "traction with a critical mass of composers." I
think composers make music (sometimes linked with ideas, however polemically
expressed, and sometimes linked with other composers) and then critics and other
camp-followers catch on, articulate them however crudely, and finally turn them
into pedantry, by which time the next big idea has already coalesced.
How big is a big idea?
posted @ 4:37 pm
I’m not sure that the Big Ideas of the past seemed quite so monolithic to the
people who held or opposed them, except in the philosophically
oh-so-self-conscious Germany of the late 19th Century. (I’m talking about the
puffed-up “Music of the Future debates.)
Surely Mozart, for instance, saw himself as fusing many of the idioms that
were available to him – Lutheran chorales, Counterreformation counterpoint,
learned fugue, popular German melodrama, over-the-top Italian opera, harpsichord
improvisations, mooning Romantic melodies, cut-rate fanfares, folk songs,
Mannheim gut-punches, and so on. He manipulated all these disparate genres and
mushed them together with post-modern panache. Categories, to him as to us,
seemed valuable insofar as they could be broken down
I think of today’s compositional scene as a generation in search of a
synthesis, rather than a new order. In going to concerts of new music I’m always
struck, not so much any more by the absence of a lingua franca, but by the need
to have currents and traditions merge and jostle. Each piece becomes a little
It’s easy to see the appeal of this approach, which mirrors census data and
patterns of migration. America now boasts its first generation of composers born
and raised in Asia ( Tan Dun, Chen Yi, Zhou Long, Bright Sheng , to
mention only the Chinese contingent) producing a large body of music that is
about cultural conflict and accommodation, which is the issue of our
What puzzles me, though, is the feeling that in this free-for-all it’s still
possible to distinguish the good from the bad. Quality is not dead. The music of
Osvaldo Golijov blends Jewish klezmer, Russian romanticism, Argentinian tango,
Israeli folk song, a pan-Latin assortment of rhythms and North American
minimalism into an exhilarating hybrid. Yet the other day, I went to hear Paul
Taylor (aka DJ Spooky that Subliminal
Kid) preside over “Transmetropolitan,” an evening of cross-cultural
electronic music and literature that struck me as so much amateurish feelgood
So what’s the difference? A strong compositional hand, a personal sensibility
capable of treating a superabundance of sources like so much reusable clay. When
that sort of spirit emerges, a fitful consensus develops. Golijov regularly
makes crowds go wild and critics shed their shells.
That’s fine for those who are already in the concert hall, but can a wider
cultural consensus develop behind a musical idea today? Can a composer ever
again capture the popular imagination? That’s a topic for another
Jotting I: We do have a Big Idea
posted @ 4:48 pm
Musicians reflexively think a big idea means a
dominant musical style, like classicism or serialism, but such a style often
simply reflects the political, social and intellectual ideas that shape an era.
I believe classical music in the United States currently is dominated by the
radical egalitarianism that emerged politically in the 1960s. The belief that
anything and everything should be equal has produced a period, at least in the
United States, where any classical style, sufficiently well crafted, is
acceptable - or should be, according to the radical egalitarian dogma.
The problem for classical music is how, aided by revolutions brought on by
such things the invention of the transistor and the emergence of jet travel,
that egalitarianism has shaken the foundations of many of its mainstay
READER: Where Are The Women?
posted @ 6:50 pm
How's GENDER PARITY for a big idea in classical music: within performing
ensembles, administrative corps, boards of directors, journalists, and... the
participants in artsjournal.com's blog?
Read this blog by date:
7/27 7/28 7/29 7/30 7/31 8/1 8/2 8/3 8/4 8/5 8/6 8/7
ABOUT THIS BLOG
There was a time when great cities had multiple newspapers and culture was hashed out daily in the press, strongly-held opinions battling for the hearts and minds of readers. Today it's rare for a city to have more than one or two outlets where culture can be publicly discussed, let alone prodded and pulled and challenged...
THE QUESTION BEFORE US
If the history of music is the recorded conversation of ideas, then where do we find ourselves in that conversation at the start of the 21st Century? In the past, musical ideas have been fought over, affirmed then challenged again, with each generation adding something new. Ultimately consensus was achieved around an idea, and that idea gained traction with a critical mass of composers.
Now we are in a period when no particular musical idea seems to represent our age, and it appears that for the moment – at least on the surface – that there is no obvious direction music is going. So the question is: what is the next chapter in the historical conversation of musical ideas, and where are the seeds of those ideas planted?
Or: Is it possible that, with traditional cultural structures fragmenting, and the ways people are getting and using culture fundamentally changing, that it is no longer possible for a unifying style to emerge? Is it still possible for a Big Idea to attain the kind of traction needed to energize and acquire a critical mass of composers and performers?
(syndicate this AJblog)
| MOST RECENT POSTS |
READER: The purpose of music
- Linda Rogers (08/06/2004 10:46 am)
READER: Thank you to all
- Jennifer Higdon (08/06/2004 10:10 am)
READER: To Corey Dargel and Kyle Gann
- Garth Trinkl (08/06/2004 9:21 am)
READER: re:Where Are The Young Voices?
- Andrea La Rose (08/06/2004 9:21 am)
READER: To Justin: Art can be entertaining, but it is not entertainment
- Arthur J. Sabatini (08/06/2004 8:42 am)
- Kyle Gann (08/06/2004 8:41 am)
READER: Where Are The Young Voices?
- Corey Dargel (08/06/2004 8:21 am)
Over and out - an anti-rant rant
- Justin Davidson (08/06/2004 7:05 am)
READER: Classical Music Doesn't Fit The PR Mold
- Dennis Bathory-Kitsz (08/05/2004 9:21 pm)
READER: Eclecticism Is Better Anyway
- Hale Jacob (08/05/2004 7:41 pm)
| THE MUSIC CRITICS |
The Wall Street Journal
- To Justin: Hermetic
- Performance ideas
- Truly big classical
- Another view
- Composer bashing, female
critics, form and content
- Big Ideas--Who Needs Them?
The New Yorker
- Clarification, Departure
- The New New Thing
- To AC Douglas
- Pop Innovation
- A Potential Goldmine
- To Rockwell: Styles, Not
- Listening for Passionate
- Listening examples provided
- Queries for John Rockwell
- Unfair on my part
- Composer bashing
- Inside a big idea
- Names & Their Inadequacies
- The Idea & Its Conditions
- The Next Medium-Sized Idea
- Alternate Universe
- Thanks, Kyle
- To Kyle
- Who's saying give up?
- Some Things Are New, Actually
- High/Low Redux
- pop envy
- Where was THAT in Classical
- Apology & Comment
- How Big is a Big Idea?
The New York Times
- Reply to Kyle and a Plea
- Arghhh, or however you
- The Magpie
- Brahms and Wagner
- Question for Kyle
- To Alex, Justin: the pedant
- Initial Entry
Dallas Morning News
- What's success?
- Pop music precendent
- Female Critics
- Movements & Media
- A Blurry Patchwork
- Jotting IV: Grab Bag
- Jotting III: When John
- Jotting II: I'd Rather Not Get
A Call From Stalin
- Jotting I: We Do Have A Big
The New York Times
- What's the big idea?
- A Few Responses To
- Back to Fragmentation
for a Minute
- Gender footnote
- Another preamble
- Composers are Composers
but Distinctions are
- No apology to pop and
- Taking Issue With The
John von Rhein
San Francisco Chronicle
| FROM READERS |
The Purpose of Music
- Linda Rogers (08/06/2004 10:46 am)
Thank you to all
- Jennifer Higdon (08/06/2004 10:10 am)
To Corey Dargel and Kyle Gann
- Garth Trinkl (08/06/2004 10:00 am)
re: Where Are The Young Voices?
- Andrea La Rose (08/06/2004 9:21 am)
To Justin: Art can be entertaining, but it is notentertainment
- Arthur J. Sabatini (08/06/2004 8:42 am)
Where Are The Young Voices?
- Corey Dargel (08/06/2004 8:20 am)
- Brian Newhouse (08/05/2004 9:26 pm)
Classical Music Doesn't Fit The PR Mold
- Dennis Bathory-Kitsz (08/05/2004 9:18 pm)
Eclecticism Is Better Anyway
- Hale Jacob (08/05/2004 7:40 pm)
What Is Live Performance, Anyway?
- Steve Layton (08/05/2004 7:34 pm)
All Reader Posts
| OTHER RESOURCES |
- Discography of Minimalist and
- Kyle Gann on Post-Minimalism
- Kyle Gann: Following the
| BLOGROLL |
- DJ Spooky
- Tan Dun
- Zhou Long
- Bright Sheng
OTHER AJ BLOGS |