Classical Music Critics on the Future of Music
A 10-Day AJ Topic Blog (July
28-August 7, 2004)
Wednesday, July 28
Listening for Passionate Engagement
By Alex Ross
posted @ 2:41 am
Composers are recovering from the twentieth century, the century in which big
ideas ran amok. A kind of competitive marketplace developed in the wake of
Wagner in which composers tried to outstrip each other in the invention of new
languages, new trends, new stylized relationships with the past.
You had Debussyish impressionism, Schoenbergian atonality, Stravinskyan
neoclassicism, Milhaud’s jazz style, Hindemith’s “music for use,” Weill’s “epic
opera,” Krenek’s “now opera,” Copland’s “populist” style, Ives’ polystylistic
collage — and that takes us up only to the middle of the century. In the postwar
era, pandemonium. Stockhausen has at one time or another described himself as
the purveyor of “serial music,” “point music,” “electronic music,” “new
percussion music,” “new piano music,” “spatial music,” “statistical music,”
“aleatoric music,” “live electronic music,” a “new syntheses of music and
speech,” “musical theatre,” “ritual music,” “scenic music,” “group composition,”
“process composition,” “moment composition,” “formula composition,”
“multi-formula composition,” “universal music,” “telemusic,” “spiritual music,”
“intuitive music,” “mantric music,” and, last but not least, “cosmic music.” All
big ideas — but big music? At no time in the last hundred years did any one
style predominate. The last time music can really be said to have been “unified”
was in 1880 or so, before the advent of Debussy.
Is the lack of big ideas a crisis or a boon? On the one hand, I think it’s
immensely clarifying for composers to be speaking the same language. Part of the
trouble that listeners have with “modern music” is that they have absolutely no
idea what to expect: noise, silence, tonality, atonality, a hundred shades in
between. So if there were a trend toward consolidation, toward the creation of a
new “lingua franca,” it would be all to the good. But it’s not going to happen.
Our musical world is too global, too multifarious, for any one language to take
More than ever, the composer is going to be a kind of creative parasite,
feeding off available sounds. Which is not to say that every piece must become a
crazy-quilt of styles. The so-called postmodern era is also over — the carnival
at the end of the modernist fast. Rather, nothing is in theory “out of bounds,”
anything is possible. What matters is not the language of the work but the
passion and focus of the speaker. As a critic, I am trying more and more to make
no pre-judgements whatsoever on the question of style, and simply to listen for
To Alex and Justin; the pedant at work
posted @ 3:45 am
Alex: a unified style in 1880, in the teeth of
the Hanslick-Wagner-Brahms brou-ha-ha? Justin: It's Paul Miller, not Paul
Taylor, and however bad both you and I thought his "Transmetroplitan" was,
you're lucky you didn't see his "Rebirth of a Nation" two days later, which Jon
Pareles reviews in today's Times and which I comment on in my Friday
Apology & comment
posted @ 5:29 am
Oops, Paul Miller, yes of course. Not Paul Taylor, the choreographer. Too bad
about Rebirth of a Nation, for which I had at least modest hopes.
OK, so we're more or less agreed that a musical consensus was always a
mirage. (We have a consensus! What do you know?) Even so, there was at least a
lingua franca. There were rules, conventions, categories, broad notions of taste
and appropriateness, a notion of the vulgar and refined that the transgressive
likes of Ives and Mahler could challenge and exploit. We have none of that
today. Composers are condemned to reinvent the wheel and audiences have lost the
valuable capacity to be shocked. Can anyone imagine a piece of music starting a
Rite of Spring-like riot today?
That state of grace, in which composers know that audiences know what to
expect and create drama by defying those expectations, ain't coming back. That
makes for a difficult creative climate, not just for composers but for
performing musicians too. How do you surprise a jaded audience with a sudden
diminished seventh chord or a "wrong" resolution, or an quirky change of meter?
The bourgeoisie has become epatement-proof.
(Incidentally, the same issues apply in the visual arts, but exhibition wall
texts still prattle on about "transgression" and "challenging received notions"
as if those terms had any meaning.)
We critics are left trying to orient ourselves in each new piece.
Fortunately, we are helped by the tenacious human penchant for spinoff,
plagiarism and imitation. Even in a time that prizes originality above all else
- and therefore debases the whole concept - every new invention immediately
attracts a swarm of knock-offs. These neo-pseudo-school-of-pieces do us the
great service of throwing into relief the qualities of the first or the best
(not necessarily the same thing).
So maybe the starting question can be reformulated a little more modestly:
What's the next Medium-Sized idea? That is, who are the younger composers
capable of generating a derivative school, of being eventually coopted by car
commercials, of being asked to write Hollywood film scores?
Alex, if the postmodern carnvial is over, have you detected the next
The Next Medium-Sized Idea
By Kyle Gann
posted @ 6:39 am
So maybe the starting question can be
reformulated a little more modestly: What's the next Medium-Sized idea? That is,
who are the younger composers capable of generating a derivative school, of
being eventually coopted by car commercials, of being asked to write Hollywood
Well, thought I answered this, but let me try again. One of the most
widespread current styles, a true lingua franca in which a great variety of
composers across the country communicate, is postminimalism. To recycle a
description I’ve published, rather than “say it again in worser English” as
Robert Frost said, postminimalist music is generally
tonal, mostly consonant (or at least never tensely dissonant), and usually
based on a steady pulse. The music rarely strays from conventionally musical
sounds, although many of the composers use synthesizers. Postminimal composers
tended to work in shorter forms than the minimalists, 15 minutes rather than 75
or 120, and with more frequent textural variety. And the preferred medium for
most of them was the mixed chamber ensemble pioneered by Glass and Reich, though
without the minimalist habit of ensemble unison. [Postminimalist music also
tends to combine elements from diverse cultures, though in an integrated rather
than eclectic manner. Quasi-minimalist additive and subtractive processes, often
moving A, AB, ABC, and so on, are common as a structural basis.]
Another way to characterize postminimalism is negative: it was the exact
antipodal opposite of serialism. Like the serialists, the postminimalists sought
a consistent musical language, a cohesive syntax within which to compose. But
where serialist syntax was abrupt, discontinuous, angular, arrhythmic, and
opaque, postminimalist syntax was precisely the opposite: smooth, linear,
melodic, gently rhythmic, comprehensible. The postminimalist generation, most of
them born in the 1940s, had grown up studying serialism, and had internalized
many of its values. Minimalism inspired them to seek a more audience-friendly
music than serialism, but they still conceptualized music in terms familiar to
them from 12-tone thought: as a language with rules meant to guarantee internal
A few of the composers I’d consider as falling into this movement include
William Duckworth, Janice Giteck, Daniel Lentz, the late Jonathan Kramer, Ingram
Marshall, Beth Anderson, Daniel Goode, Dan Becker, Carolyn Yarnell, Belinda
Reynolds, John Halle, Randall Woolf, Melissa Hui, Marc Mellits, Ed Harsh, Elodie
Lauten, Peter Gena, Bill Alves, David Borden, Gavin Bryars, Michael Nyman,
Giancarlo Cardini, Michael Byron, Conrad Cummings, Robert Een, Jim Fox, Jean
Hasse, Paul Lansky, John McGuire, Paul Epstein, Peter Garland, Paul Dresher,
Tayloe Harding, Mary Jane Leach, Beata Moon, Hans Otte, Maggi Payne, James
Sellars, Bunita Marcus, Julius Eastman, Andrew Schulze, Nicole Reisnour, Allison
Cameron, Wayne Siegel, Charles Smith, Giovanni Sollima, Bernadette Speach, Kevin
Volans, "Blue" Gene Tyranny, sometimes James Tenney, Stephen Scott, Mary Ellen
Childs, Guy Klucevsek, Phil Winsor, Joseph Koykkar, Thomas Albert, Sasha Matson,
and Wes York.
Now, I don’t know about asking these guys to write film scores - geez, is
that going to be a criterion? But I did note that the 2000 film
Pollock, about the Abstract Expressionist painter, had a fascinating film
score by Jeff Beal in a thoroughly postminimalist idiom.
Question for Kyle
By John Rockwell
posted @ 7:20 am
There was a time, long ago, when I was as up on the byways of new music as
Kyle is. But an innocent question (innocent because I don't know half of Kyle's
postminimalist names): how many of those composers are under the age of 50? If,
as I suspect (but don't know for sure), the considerable majority are roughly
Kyle's age, then can their work be considered the next big, or even medium,
Of course, you could argue that in their maturity they represent the current
mainstream, even if they've hardly made a dent on the larger public
consciousness. I mean, maybe there's a big idea seizing those who write poetry
in Urdu as a hobby, but can it legitimately be compared to chorale preludes on
Lutheran hymn tunes or the birth of the symphony or "the music of the future" or
even Serialism, back when? Trees falling unheard in forests, etc.
The Idea and its Conditions
By Kyle Gann
posted @ 7:49 am
Hi John - the composers on that list range in
age from 23 to 66, but the bulk of them are in their 40s and 50s - maybe a third
of them aren't 50 yet. We could discuss totalism, and I could give you another
list mostly in their 40s. I’m 48, and I don’t feel well qualified to
characterize the music scene of people a decade or more younger than myself.
Some youngster will have to speak for his own generation.
As for making a dent in public consciousness, I don’t believe that that is
any longer within the composer’s control. These days, corporations refuse to
push music that doesn’t make an immediate return on its investment, and so they
act as a daunting filter. A lot of these people have CDs on small labels that,
in the golden 1960s and ‘70s, distributors might have carried for variety’s
sake, but will do so no longer. Heck, in the '60s Columbia would have been
recording these people. In terms of the new-music scene at its current
drought level of support, a lot of these people are considered well-known -
given that, by and large, these are names you will not find on orchestra
programs, because they don't bother with the orchestra (or vice versa).
It’s easy, if we want to do it, to define “the next big idea” in such
a way that nothing could possibly qualify under current cultural conditions: 1.
it has to have broken through massive corporate indifference to creative music,
and to have reached the public; 2. it has to be by composers who became
“successful” by a certain age; etc. I offer a definition that is realistic given
the status quo - otherwise we’re likely to, instead, end up talking about the
status quo itself.
To John Rockwell: Styles, Not Politics
By Alex Ross
posted @ 8:20 am
When I said that music in 1880 was unified, I meant stylistically, not
politically. Despite the heated Wagner-Brahms debate, I think close analysts
would agree that the two composers were speaking pretty much the same language
in harmonic terms. With some judicious re-scoring, you could make parts of
"Parsifal" sound like the Fourth Symphony, and vice versa. Compare the stylistic
canyons of the year 1950: Britten's "Billy Budd" and Boulez's "Structures"
simply do not inhabit the same universe, even though both were performed almost
simultaneously in Paris in 1952.
I'll readily agree with Kyle Gann that post-minimalism is probably the
biggest "middle-sized" idea these days. The classic minimalism of Young, Riley,
Reich, and Glass was the last "big idea" of the twentieth century, and I doubt
we'll see another anytime soon. Minimalism had a far greater impact on pop music
(Velvet Underground, Brian Eno, David Bowie, all modern electronic and dance
music) than it did on classical composition, where it is still being very
gradually assimilated. Young composers tell me that the minimalists are
routinely dispraised in academic music departments around the country, which
seems incredible. Before we go forward, we have to understand the past ‹ absorb
the twentieth century in all its "alienated majesty," to quote
READER: Where's Music's Toni Morrison?
posted @ 1:11 pm
Thanks for posting such interesting comments on music. Can your critics
compare the current state of affairs with music with that of other art forms
such as drama or literature? For instance, in the past 25 years I can think of
several developments in these fields that percolated down into public
READER: Ideas From Critics?
posted @ 1:14 pm
When a composer friend of mine (who is traveling at the moment) heard about
Critical Conversations, he wrote me: "If there are big ideas to be discussed, or
even the possibilities of big ideas, it is much more likely to come from artists
Brahms and Wagner
By John Rockwell
posted @ 1:34 pm
Dead horses should not be unduly beaten, and
this conversation is about the present and future, however much we might learn
from the past. But Alex, I still think there were big differences between W and
B -- not just Hanslick's polemics, but what they themselves believed and what we
today can still hear. It would be interesting to know what Schoenberg thought
about this, or what Walter Frisch thinks (maybe they've articulated themselves
already on the subject). Even if one buys the idea of the basic similarity of
harmonic language in W and B (and sure, they were both in the German tradition,
post-Bach, post-Beethoven), there are other differences. Like form and rhythm
and use of motivic phrases or kernels and the relation to words and so on. I buy
your Britten-Boulez comparison, though. But what about the differences in
abstraction from a Pollock painting to an Earle Brown graphic score to Babbitt?
Everything looks "unified" from a distant enough perspective.
Initial posting. Big Ideas--Who Needs Them?
posted @ 3:22 pm
I have never understood the allure of trying to
define the next Big Idea, especially in such a tumultuous field as classical
music. At certain points in history, big or semi-big Ideas are so obvious that
they practically name themselves. With the rise of Glass, Reich and Riley,
minimalism was obviously one big idea. Serialism was another. But eventually,
many big ideas turn into big ideologies, schools of thought that stifle
creativity rather than stimulate it. It is beyond me why we would feel the need
to search for big ideas--or worst yet, predict the next one--at a time, like
now, when none is obviously rising to the surface. Admittedly, big ideas are
useful for critics, and I mourn the lack of them at the moment. We have all
struggled to describe a piece of music in a way that readers might actually
understand, that would help them imagine the sounds we heard. "Minimalist'' and
"12-tone'' are handy labels, shorthand we can assume will have some meaning for
our readers. The urge to classify is a human need, a source of comfort, a way of
making order out of the chaos around us. In our hearts, however, we must
acknowledge that our carefully constructed order is most likely an illusion. I
have no doubt that any number of potential big ideas are swirling around out
there, But until one emerges, its absence is no tragedy. Big ideas are useful
when they come along. They give listeners a way to understand unfamiliar music.
They give composers with competing views something to rebel against. But
presuming to define and predict trends has always struck me as preposterous, an
exercise in pomposity. Who among us really knows where a dynamic art form is
Movements and media
posted @ 3:42 pm
Interesting stuff here, including the first trickle from readers.
"Post-modernism." "Post-minimalism." The very labels tell us there is no "big
thing." We now define what's happening only by what it's not.
One musical legacy of the 20th century was the vast spread of classical
music, even into smallish cities. Today you can see sophisticated opera
productions, with a very fine orchestra, even in Tulsa, Oklahoma. For all the
exalted (some might say hyped) reputation of the Metropolitan Opera orchestra,
on a given evening you may hear better playing in the pit in Houston.
What hasn't gotten spread abroad is the new-music scene, which is
still heavily concentrated in New York, maybe Los Angeles and a handful of
academic centers. Of Kyle Gann's long list of significant newer composers, no
more than three have been heard in the Dallas-Fort Worth area in the five years
I've been here. But then neither, to my knowledge, have we had a single piece by
either Elliott Carter or Pierre Boulez. We have two small contemporary-music
series, but their programming tends to be wary of upsetting people's
Kyle also raises the issue of the record industry vis-a-vis new music. After
a veritable explosion in the 1990s, when the CD was the hot new thing, the
record business now is a floundering "mature industry." With what used to be the
"majors" reduced to kitschy crossover and repackaging back catalogue, performers
and even composers are putting out their own CDs, which don't get widespread
distribution. Which provides yet another example of the fragmentation of music
and culture in general. Downloading has the potential of transforming the whole
recording business, but at least for classical music it's not there yet. Maybe
we're all just waiting for "the next big thing" in music delivery systems. But
in the meantime, don't count on major recorded exposure for new music.
There's also the problem of the daily-newspaper scene. Even a city as big as
Houston, the fourth-largest in the country, has only one daily newspaper with
one classical music critic (the knowlegeable and thoughtful Charles Ward). Gone
are the days when critics at hotly competitive papers tried to outdo one another
by going out on partisan limbs. The high-and-mighty pontifications of Virgil
Thomson wouldn't sell today.
I felt this keenly when, after working in competitive newspaper markets in
Albany and Rochester, N.Y., I went to The Kansas City Star, which had
just absorbed its competing paper. As the only classical-music critic in town, I
found myself more cautious in my judgements, less willing to be outrageous. No
one told me to do so, but I just felt myself in a very different position. It
doesn't help, of course, that ours has become so litigious a society. Or that
papers, increasingly jittery about perceptions of bias, promote "fair and
balanced" (pace Fox News) coverage.
What critic today would write, as Hanslick did of the Tchaikovsky Violin
Concerto, of "music that stinks in the ear?" Maybe we're more responsible in
writing about new music, more careful. But we're a lot less fun to read.
Good point from the reader raising the issue of gender balance, which isn't
even close in much of the classical-music world. Nowhere is the
imbalance worse than in music criticism. The New York Times finally
hired a woman, Anne Midgette, and we've got Wynne Delacoma in Chicago, Willa
Conrad in Newark, Melinda Bargreen in Seattle, Janelle Gelfand and Mary Ellen
Hutton in Cincinnati, Wilma Salisbury in the number-two spot in Cleveland. Have
I forgotten someone? Out of maybe 55 full-time classical-music critics at
American papers, that's hardly parity.
Names and their Inadequacy
By Kyle Gann
posted @ 3:58 pm
In response to Scott Cantrell's comment (hello,
Scott - glad to be in contact with the critic from my hometown newspaper), it's
true that "postminimalism" is an unfortunately vague term. On the other hand, a
more specific term might be even more unfortunate - I feel a moniker for a
musical movement should be kind of cloudy (Fluxus was a great one), so as not to
seem like it's pushing composers in a specific direction. It may be that, years
from now, a more appropriate term will evolve for the music we now call
postminimal. After all, by the time A.B. Marx coined "sonata-allegro form" in
1828, Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, and Schubert were all dead, and the purely
concentrated history of the genre was about over. I could also, though, have
chosen instead to write about totalism or spectral music (Europe's latest
composing fad), both of which terms have a little more to do with the techniques
By Greg Sandow
posted @ 4:02 pm
Let me try this in another way. I think we're suffering (not that anyone will
be surprised to see me say this) from a disconnect between classical music and
the rest of our culture. We're tossing around serialism, poor dead serialism, as
an example of a classical music Big Idea, but who, outside the small world of
composers, ever cared about it? Maybe Claude Levi-Strauss, who slapped it with
the back of his hand when it was new ("Guys, this is bullshit!" if I might
freely paraphrase what he wrote). But who else cared?
All classical music trembled (well, composers trembled) when Pierre Boulez so
famously said that non-serial composers were useless, Meanwhile, Philip Glass,
who was in Paris during some of Boulez's most impassioned years, pointed out
much later in an interview that Parisians in the arts didn't care about Boulez.
Godard, Truffaut -- that's who they talked about. And I can understand that. In
high school late in the '50s and then in college early in the '60s, the Big
Ideas that resonated with me came from films. Antonioni was my god. I can
remember in his film Red Desert a shot that gripped me for what seemed
to be minutes; when I saw the film a second time, I realized that it had only
lasted seconds. I remember in Godard's La Chinoise a way the starts and
stops of a commuter train punctuated a conversation, and in Two or Three
Things I Know About Her how space seemed to curve itself into a closeup of
a cup of coffee that had just been stirred.
For me, these things defined power in new art. And in many ways they still
do; I'd rather lose all the music of that time (certainly all of Boulez, much as
I like his stuff) than those films. The ideas in them were in some ways
abstract, and in some ways not. My favorite, my touchstone, was Antonioni's
L'avventura. What I learned from it was the power of unspoken passion,
and -- a favorite '50s theme -- the blankness and futility, the deadly, bleak
alienation, of a society that can't accommodate that, or much of anything else
(except hypocrisy, and bland conformity). And the film seems just as powerful
now. Here were Big Ideas that were very much part of their time, whether they
showed up in Sartre, or Beckett, or in popular sociological tomes like The
Organization Man or The Lonely Crowd.
And where were these Big Ideas, so central to their time, in the classical
music of the '50s? Nowhere, I'd say. Where was existentialism? Psychoanalysis?
The Beat Generation? A Big Idea, in these terms, doesn't have to dominate. It
doesn't have to be the Only Idea. It just has to sweep some large group of
people into its path, define their lives for them. The Big Ideas in musical
composition swept along hardly anybody, and defined hardly anything. Throughout
my adult life, much as I've loved classical music, the defining ideas I've most
cared about have mostly come from elsewhere. I've dwelt on the '50s here, but I
could easily find examples in other decades. Did the '60s even register inside
the classical world? (Well, sure, George Crumb seems like a '60s type, and
Stockhausen went as far off the deep end as Timothy Leary, but these are
isolated figures, despite their fame.)
I'll close (because I've been plunging back into the Beats lately) with an
eager, excited, naive, inspired passage from Kerouac's On the Road, as
quintessential a piece of Big Idea-ing as we're likely to find in any art
produced in the '50s, tremendously influential, a book that echoed down the
decades (and now, God save the mark, is even an Acknowledged Literary
Masterpiece). Note especially the last few words:
The whole mad swirl of everything that was to come began then; it would mix
up all my friends and all I had left of my family in a big dust cloud over the
American Night. Carlo told him of Old Bull Lee, Elmer Hassel, Jane; Lee in Texas
growing weed, Hassel on Riker's Island, Jane wandering on Times Square in a
benzedrine hallucination, with her baby girl in her arms and ending up in
Bellvue. And Dean told Carlo of unknown people in the West like Tommy Snark, the
clubfooted poolhall rotation shark and cardplayer and queer saint. He told him
of Roy Johnson, Big Ed Dunkel, his boyhood buddies, his street buddies, his
innumerable girls and sex parties and pornographic pictures, his heroes,
heroines, adventures. They rushed down the street together, digging everything
in the early way they had, which later became so much sadder and perceptive and
blank. But then they danced down the streets like dingledodies, and I shambled
after as I've been doing all my life after people who interest me, because the
only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk,
mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who never
yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn like fabulous yellow roman
candles exploding like spiders across the stars...
Where was that in classical music?
Where was THAT in classical music?
posted @ 5:59 pm
That was not to be found because the big idea about music in the
1950s was that music was supposed to be about music. As much as avant-garde film
lost itself in the narcotic charms of this camera angle or that excruciating
silence, it still couldn't help being about the same things that have always
concerned consumers of art: emotions, money, sex, power, self-regard. And no
matter how much writers delighted themselves with the abstract ring, the rhythm
- okay, the musicality - of language, they were still, at bottom
telling stories and describing the world around them.
But by then composers, even the best composers - especially the best
composers - had wandered so deep into the forests of technique, sound, structure
and effect that the music they wrote was completely hermetic. I don't mean that
it was incomprehensible, only that it was purely about itself.
This has largely remained true.
It's got nothing to do with serialism. Glass' music isn't particularly about
anything, either: it's just a decorative acoustical pillow on which
dramatic jewels can be placed for show. His burbling music suits scenes
of passing clouds or obsessed explorers or Chinese emperors equally well,
precisely because it lacks specific content. Postminimalism, totalism, and
their ilk are still mostly pure-music constructs - reactions to or extensions of
what other composers have done before. So the audience is left behind: if you
don't know the ur-style, you can't grasp the post-.
But maybe we've come full circle. Postmodernism may be dead (though I'm not
convinced) but many musicians and composers are once again deeply involved in
trying to reconcile the "whole mad swirl," as Kerouac put it. Only this time
it's a global swirl, a sense of cultural overload that has become even more
acute since 9/11. Every day we have trouble understanding how ancient conflicts
and traditions can coexist with new technologies and ideologies.
That's why I harp so much on Golijov, because I think he is one of those
composers who have successfully managed a lot of different inputs. John Adams
has remarked that Charles Ives was the first composer to think of the orchestra
as a mixing console - letting different musical sources compete in real time.
Golijov once told me that he literally composed his "Pasion segun San Marcos" in
the same way: patching together Reich's Music for 18 Musicians with some looped
Afro-Indian chants, and listening to the result for hour upon hour, as a way of
getting himself started.
When Ives sat down at his orchestral console, he was working on the Big Idea
of his time: the breathless urbanization and industrialization of small-town
America, seen through a spiritual prism. Golijov is writing about one of our big
ideas: the breathless westernization and economic consolidation of a
small-country world, again seen through a spiritual prism.
Greg's right: half a century ago film, literature and the media could
coalesce around a burning topic while composers fiddled. Today, hot topics have
the shelf life of oysters in the sun, leaving composers to keep contemplating
what's important after everyone else has moved on. Cultural globalism isn't over
just because pundits have gotten tired of talking about it.
Truly big classical ideas
posted @ 6:09 pm
It seems to me that the biggest ideas in classical music -- at least in my
time -- haven't been about composition. I'm talking about ideas that had a
dominant, defining impact on the field, and one of these would be a standard
notion about the role of performers -- that they exist to realize the composer's
intentions. If you ask me, this notion is badly suspect, and the first problem
with it is that it ought to be unnecessary. Since classical performers play
music composers have written, what else -- other than play what the composer
wrote -- are they supposed to be in business for? I guess we could worry about
the one musician in ten thousand who deliberately goes against what the
composer writes (by playing a fast piece slowly, or a soft one
fortissimo), but these people are too rare to bother with.
No, I think the stricture I'm talking about has another function -- it's
directed towards performers who take a very personal (and typically romantic)
view of a composer's score. Thus it privileges "objective" interpretations, or
anyway interpretations that have come to seem objective, performances without
extremes of dynamics, tempo, feeling, or contrast. And thus it's in many ways a
modernist notion, linked to literary criticism that focuses on objective facts
about a text, and to modernist music, where the role of the performer is
distinctly secondary. (In one extreme but telling comment, Milton Babbitt
compared performers to typists.)
In its time, this kind of performance could be bracing, and certainly rescued
us from some kinds of sentimental excess. But buried inside it is a curious
notion, which is that the composers' intentions most worth honoring are the ones
notated objectively in a score. Sometimes, in fact, these become the only
intentions worth honoring. And this is curious, because composers have all kinds
of other ideas, either implicit in the score, inherent in the musical style of a
piece, known from the performance practice of the time when a piece was written
-- or, most interestingly, explicitly stated by the composer.
What do we make, for instance, of a Bellini opera, where Bellini wanted and
expected his vocal lines to be changed by each singer who sang them? Or of
Webern, who passionately urged performers of his music to make shifts in tempo
and dynamics not marked in his scores? (He certainly conducted other people's
music that way, as his recordings of Schubert dances show.)
And then there are what we might call composers' meta-intentions, things not
related to the notes, but rather to the effect a piece should make. Mozart said
outright that the first movement of his Paris Symphony was designed to make the
audience react -- he deliberately repeated material that he knew the crowd would
like, and was delighted when they burst into applause while the music was
playing. He also said that the orchestral accompaniment to Belmonte's opening
aria in The Abduction from the Seraglio was meant to evoke, among other
things, the beating of Belmonte's heart. So how do we honor Mozart's intentions
in these pieces? By scrupulous care with dynamics, articulation, and structure
(maybe even going as far as, with Gunther Schuller, making sure that crescendos
start and end exactly where Mozart marked them)? Or by making the people in the
audience sit up and take notice, happily reacting to the appearance of each
tasty new theme, and feeling their own hearts beat along with Belmonte's?
A new Big Idea would be very welcome, at least to me -- a reintroduction of
performer freedom, but to what now would be considered a drastic degree. You can
find examples of this in old recordings, especially by singers. Look at Ivan
Kozlovsky, one of the two star tenors at the Bolshoi Opera during Stalin's rule.
To judge from films and recordings, he's clearly one of the greatest tenors who
ever lived, measured simply by technique, breath control, range (all the way up
to an F above high C, with Cs and C sharps thrown out like thrilling candy),
phrasing, and expression. (He's not well known outside Russia, though, for two
likely reasons: He never sang on our side of the Iron Curtain, and he only sang
But what makes him most unusual -- and, to many people, quite improper -- is
that he sang at least some of the time like a pop singer, using lots of
falsetto, almost crooning at times, and above all taking any liberty he pleased,
slowing down and speeding up as the mood suited him. To my ears, he's
mesmerizing when he does that. You can't (to bastardize an old cliche) take your
ears off him. And when he does it in the Duke's opening solo in the duet with
Gilda from Rigoletto, he nails the Duke's character as no other singer
I've ever heard could do. You don't just theorize that the Duke is attractive to
women; you feel it, and want to surrender to him yourself. Or, perhaps,
run away, which is exactly the kind of dual reaction a man like that would
I'm reminded of Ellen Willis's classic line about Lou Reed singing "Heroin,"
which I'll paraphrase, not having it handy just now: You don't know whether to
run to save him, or to plunge the needle into your own vein. Well, Kozlovsky
isn't really that strong. He's in part just a sentimental entertainer. But what
sentiment, and what entertainment! And what perfect singing. When he croons "O
Mimi tu piu non torni" (in Russian, of course), some people might roll their
eyes at the way he slows down at the peak of the phrase, but you can't ignore
his genuine feeling, or his perfect control as he slowly dreams his voice into
the lightest of pianissimos.
Singing like that would be absolutely forbidden in opera today. No teacher,
no coach, and no conductor would let any singer try it. And yet, if someone
stepped out on the stage of the Met singing that way, the audience would go
insane. The applause wouldn't end. And opera would come back to life.
READER: What Do The Critics Want?
By John Shaw
posted @ 7:03 pm
It’s interesting to see critics discussing the
future of classical composition, because, as Wynne Delacoma and Jan Herman
noted, critics almost never can predict the future... read
By John Rockwell
posted @ 7:16 pm
Right ON, Greg. Eloquently done. But since you
and I have written this so often, perhaps you didn't bother to mention it again.
I did, in my initial posting, but added "enough said" and hastened on, so
self-evident did it seem. There was in fact music in the 50's and 60's and
onwards that touched the broader culture as powerfully as did films, and
that came from jazz and popular music. No one in this blog conversation has
really gotten into that idea, except for Alex Ross with his reference to
minimalism in rock. Maybe most classical critics don't like this music, or feel
unqualified to deal with it. But it's there, and the best of it touches other
artists in other fields and our society and the world as powerfully as any other
art. That's a big idea, all right. To be continued at this fall's Music Critics
Association symposium at Columbia University.
A Potential Goldmine?
By Alex Ross
posted @ 7:57 pm
John, I'm certainly not suggesting that Wagner and Brahms are in some way
interchangeable. I'm simply saying that they are speaking a similar
language, especially in terms of harmony. The enormous individuality of each is
constructed out of more or less identical building blocks. The half-diminished
seventh, for example. Schoenberg, who venerated Brahms and Wagner in equal
measure, could attest to this, I think.
Picking up from John's later post, I'll go out on a limb with a claim that I
cut from my initial post: the big, scene-setting ideas in music of the last
thirty or forty years have really appeared in popular music. It's there that you
get a sense of kinetic technical progress. James Brown funk, Beatles
psychedelia, punk rock, New Wave, Sonic Youth indie rock, hip-hop sampling,
nineties electronica: one great leap forward after another, in an incredibly
short span of time.
The question is, what does all this mean for composers? Is it extraneous,
irrelevant? Or is it a potential gold mine of musical ideas? I'd suggest that a
coming-to-terms with recent pop history will be another major task for composers
of the near future. What to do with pop is an extraordinarily complex question:
each of these musics is an art form unto itself, and the old Milhaud-Stravinsky
model of the classical flaneur promenading condescendingly through jazz will no
longer hold. It's not about imitating the inimitable surface of pop music, but
mining it for deep material. Thoughts?
Jotting II: Personally, I’d rather not get a telephone call from
By Charles Ward
posted @ 9:24 pm
As the perplexity about serialism has threaded its way through this thread –
“a ghastly remembrance usually reserved for victims of political oppression,”
commented Andrew Druckenbrod about composers who recall the dodecaphonic years –
I’ve been mulling over Solomon Volkov’s recent book on Shostakovich and Stalin
(in which telephone calls from Stalin were a clear signal of distress, even
doom). Not Volkov’s description of the conflict per se but the “big idea” behind
the epic battle. What drove Shostakovich to be willing to use his music as a
means of subversion – to accept living perpetually on the edge of death? If we
concentrate only on matters of style, we can’t answer such questions.
So, why was it that serialism assumed such a vice-like grip after the Second
World War? Why didn’t the other “isms” that Alex Ross listed retain their
allure? Why did Copland abandon his populism, take a post-war stab at 12-tone
and then fade from the compositional scene? Why, as Justin contends, did it
become so hermetic (and dogmatic)? Why does the issue of serialism still loom so
large in our discussion? Could the 10-million pound punch press grip of
Stalinism on a key segment of 20th-century politics have had a role – just as it
did with Shostakovich? Again, matters of style only can’t get to the
Classical music has more often been a “lagging indicator” of
social/political/cultural life than a “leading indicator” (to borrow terms from
the world of economics). Mozart got around to turning core human issues of the
French revolution into musical expression, in The Marriage of Figaro, only three
years before heads and blood started rolling in Paris’ streets.
Beethoven was only slightly more timely with Napoleon.
Or said another way, classical music has been pretty bad at capturing the
white-hot heat of the moment. The process of distilling ideas worth expressing,
conceptualizing the means to express them and them working out the final product
leaves the composer coughing in the dust of the mad dash to the next hot thing
(though Bernstein actually did get around to psychoanalysis in Trouble in Tahiti).
If we are interested in teasing out the ideas that could drive classical
music in the near future, we might look at issues that can be distilled in the
way Mozart turned the issue of the relationship between masters and servants
into music that has transcended its time.
In that vein I thought Justin’s comment that “cultural conflict and
accommodation … is the issue of our time” striking. I’m not sure works that are
overtly “about” conflict and accommodation can have staying power but ones that
universalize the point could (the same goes for gender parity). I’m not a
composer but I certainly would be interested in how the idea of accommodation
might be turned into musical ideas – and how we would have to change out
expectations about how a piece of music works.
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