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Classical Music Critics on the Future of Music

A 10-Day AJ Topic Blog (July 28-August 7, 2004)


Thursday, August 5

    By Greg Sandow
    posted @ 6:25 am

    Well, it's been a lovely blog about composers, and how to classify them, or whatever.

    But why am I not very interested? Even though I'm a composer myself, have specialized in new music for much of my career as a critic, and so on and so on and so on. Maybe I'd just rather listen to the music, then quibble about how to classify it. (So thanks, Kyle, for giving us all a chance to do some listening.) These classifications, as Kyle so marvelously has evoked, are intensely useful, and just as obviously limited, for reasons that have been thrashed around here, and hardly need repeating. So what else is new? I think the real news here is that most of us -- most of everybody, really -- aren't up on new composers, or new trends in composition.

    And that's probably bad news. Pop critics would do better with new stuff in pop, and jazz critics (I think; not my area) with new stuff in jazz, certainly art critics with new stuff in visual art. So I think we're not asking one of the most important questions about new composition: Who listens to it?

    I don't think it helps to say, oh, well, things are fragmented, and that's where we are, and it's a good thing, etc., etc., etc. What are the fragments about? Who do they speak to, and what do they speak about? Good pop critics are razor-sharp about that question; in fact, you might say that this is what good pop criticism is most about. The music means something, and the meaning is not something critics are deputized to determine -- instead, the meaning comes from the people who make the music and the people who listen to it, and can be pieced together in part from seeing who these people are. You mix that with what you can learn from the sound of the music, add as many grains of salt as might be necessary, say a prayer or two, and see where you end up.

    (Necessary digression: In pop, the meaning of music most definitely does not come from lyrics. It's tempting for people in classical music to assume that the meaning does come from lyrics, because that's a convenient explanation for pop's obvious connection with current life. See, the lyrics tell you stuff; they comment on what's going on. But anyone who really lives with pop will tell you that the meaning starts with how a song sounds. The lyrics either are so obvious in their meaning that there's no reason to consider them, or else they come very late in the game of learning what a song is about. Sort of the way Stendahl, in his biography of Rossini, will say (I'm paraphrasing, but there's a fair amount of this in the book), "Around the 24th time I heard this duet I started to realize that the bass part, under the tenor's melody, isn't very interesting."

    So you'll get Greil Marcus writing about some delirious Top 40 song and not even caring what the lyrics say. The sound of a song places it, for people who live in the pop world. It tells you where the song itself lives, among which people, and for what general kind of purpose. Striking example, from my own days as a pop critic: "The Living Years," a song by Mike and the Mechanics, which was a big hit in 1988 or '89, or both, forgot exactly which. I loved the song, in part because the lyrics dealt, quite touchingly, I thought, with the sensitive question of getting to know your parents before it's too late. But most other people I knew in the pop world, and especially critics, hated the song, because they didn't like the kind of mass-market tunesmithing that made it go. They didn't care what the lyrics said. Or, worse, they'd assume the lyrics had to be insincere, because they thought the style of the music necessarily was. Which then made me ask myself why I liked the musical style…but, although in some ways this digression is more interesting than my main topic, I'm going to stop it here.)

    So: who listens to new music? And why? And what can we do when people don't listen? And isn't the fragmentation even worse than we think? Not only is new music fragmented into many different flavors, it's even fragmented within the dominant mainstream flavor. How many of us could name the five top orchestral pieces premiered during the past season? Hardly any of us, I bet, for one simple reason -- we haven't heard them. How would we hear them? They're not recorded, most of them, and not broadcast. Nobody sends us scores. We'd have to learn that some piece was possibly important, and then harangue the publisher for a live recording, should one be available, and a perusal score. Can most of us even name the pieces that might possibly be important? Remember, I'm talking about pieces premiered by name orchestras, sizable opera companies, and important chamber ensembles. Who keeps track of these things for us?

    And if we can't do it, how many plain old listeners could? This is a ghastly kind of fragmentation, more like disintegration.

    And as long as I'm slashing about here, may I delicately, or, hell, not very delicately, ask who exactly is reading us? Not here in this hothouse blog, but in what I'll smilingly call real life, in the places we normally publish. Who are we speaking to?

    This, I might suggest, comes close to being a life or death question, not just for us, but for all of classical music. The musical enterprise we're all involved with might be collapsing! You'd better believe that this is the talk inside the field, especially among orchestras, but more generally among people who run classical music institutions, or present classical music at arts centers. (A fascinating bellweather, those last people. When they start saying -- as some were, at the annual presenters' conference in New York in January -- that their core audience is shrinking, and already may not be large enough to make the concerts in any remote way cost-effective, well...isn't that the canary starting to gasp down in the coal mine?)

    So what's our role in this crisis as critics? To define the many schools of composition? Shouldn't we be talking to, you know, those "culturally aware non-attenders" everybody talks about, the people whose level of culture and education suggest that they might go to classical music concerts, but in fact don't go to them? Shouldn't we be talking about how to talk to them? Don't we want -- if I might put this in a very crass way -- don't we want to have jobs in the future? What's our relationship with the people who read our publications? What's our relationship with our editors?

    And shouldn't we be talking to the people inside the classical music business? What do they think of us? What do they learn from us? I've been surprised, now that I've been working a lot inside the business myself, to discover that music critics don't play (at least as far as I can see) a very important role for the people who make the business go, whether they're musicians or administrators. Oh, sure, most people are glad to get a good review, and marketing departments are happy to quote it. And, conversely, people are pissed to get a bad review (except, in delightful cases, when they think they deserved it), and even more pissed when they think any large number of music writers, in reporting details of what's going on in the biz, get things wrong. (As, God knows, I've done any number of times.)

    But are musicians and music administrators interested in what critics say? On the whole, I don't think that they are, though of course there are exceptions. Now, you could blame them (they're not serious enough, they can't take criticism, they're only interested in press that will boost attendance), or you could blame the critics (they don't know what they're talking about, so who cares what they say?).

    But one large reason for this disconnect surprised me very much when I started to notice it. I think one reason some large number of people inside the business aren't interested in critics is that the critics aren't bold enough. What, after all, was the one thing written by a music critic during the past year that got wide attention inside the business -- wide delighted attention, in fact, with people actually xeroxing it and passing it around (my Juilliard students were doing that, long before I assigned them to read the thing), e-mailing it to each other, commenting on it, in one case I know wanting to have t-shirts made, which would display some of the killer lines from this piece?

    It was Alex's exhilarating cry back in February, about the future of classical music, certainly one of the most radical things any of us has written (and one of the best things about music that I've ever read). People inside the classical music business are almost literally hungry for thinking like that. They want to know where things are going. They want ideas about what to do. They don't care whether these ideas are orthodox or respectable; they just want some fresh, provocative, sensible thinking. How they act on that thinking would be another story, and in fact I think they all need some major goosing in this department; they talk a better game right now than they play. But let that go for the moment. If we want their attention -- and if we don't, what are we here for? -- we should give them something real, powerful, and new to think about. Believe it or not, they're ahead of us in this department; they're considering, or are willing to consider, ideas that most of us would generally suggest only with notable hesitation.

    Basta. I'm tired of typing, and I'm sure all of you -- if anybody made it to the end -- are tired of reading this. I'll just finish with one more thought about fragmentation. Why do we so easily accept it? Why do we think it's such a good or inevitable development? Well, sure, maybe it's better than totalitarian orthodoxy, but I think it has a great social cost: It means we're not talking to each other. (We as a society, now, not we as critics.)

    Nor it is entirely new. So I'll finish with the famous -- and of course much quoted, but what the hell; there's always someone who hasn't read it -- ending of Lester Bangs's obituary tribute to Elvis, "Where Were You When Elvis Died?" (the piece in which he said Elvis gave him "an erection of the heart," a line I'd give half of my classical CDs to have written, though I think I'd give all of them for what I'm about to quote). This, remember, dates from 1977:

    If love truly is going out of fashion forever, which I do not believe, then along with our nurtured indifference to each other will be an even more contemptuous indifference to each others' objects of reverence. I thought it was Iggy Stooge, you thought it was Joni Mitchell or whoever else seemed to speak for your own private, entirely circumscribed situation's many pains and few ecstasies. We will continue to fragment in this manner, because solipsism holds all the cards at present; it is a king whose domain engulfs even Elvis's. But I can guarantee you one thing: we will never again agree on anything as we agreed on Elvis. So I won't bother saying good-bye to his corpse. I will say good-bye to you.

    Leave No Term Unstoned
    By Kyle Gann
    posted @ 7:04 am

    “Artists hate terms” is a truism, but not one of the eternal truths of music. It is too often proved false - artists occasionally find terms very useful. Debussy repudiated “Impressionism,” Glass and Reich disavow “Minimalism,” and in the current climate these examples are triumphantly thrown in our face at every turn as though they embody an unalterable principle. But artist George Maciunas coined “Fluxus” (over Yoko Ono’s objections), a group of artists met at Hugo Ball’s Cabaret Voltaire in 1916 to choose the word “Dada,” Cowell and Antheil embraced “ultramodernism,” Schoenberg plumped for “pantonality” before “atonality” won, and “Minimalism” itself was the coinage of either Michael Nyman or Tom Johnson, both composers who fit the bill. No sooner did “ambient” lose its novel flavor than Paul Miller (or somebody) launched forth with “illbient.” I don’t know who came up with “New York Noise” for free improv of the 1980s, but the improvisers didn’t seem ashamed to wear it.

    Terms can be helpful to artists, especially those better remembered for where they were than what they achieved. If I mention Alison Knowles and Yoshi Wada, some of you who don’t know who I’m talking about will instantly place them in an era and milieu if I refer to them as “Fluxus artists.” The smaller the range a term includes, the more evocative it is. “Expressionism” is a vague catch-all, but “Der Blaue Reiter” is intriguing. The “Biedermeier style” so wonderfully connects the figurative inconsistancies of Hummel and Kalkbrenner to the overstuffed furniture of the early 19th-century German middle class, and both to a cartoon. No one can resist referring to Haydn’s “Sturm und Drang” period, and everyone instantly hears what it means in the “Farewell” Symphony. Discontinuities in the application of “Rococo” make it fortunate that we can divide that benighted stylistic era into the “empfindsamer stil” of the Berliners like C.P.E. Bach and the “style galant” of Galuppi and so many others, the latter so sardonically evoked a century later by the “Romantic” Browning:

    What? Those lesser thirds so plaintive, sixths diminished, sigh on sigh,
    Told them something? Those suspensions, those solutions -- "Must we die?"
    Those commiserating sevenths - "Life might last! we can but try!"

    (Browning undoubtedly meant "sixths augmented.") And if “Ars nova” recurs too often to be helpful, “Ars subtilior” is a wonderful euphemism for the mysteries of early 15th-century rhythmic complexity.

    Now, imagine musical discourse stripped of such terms. Imagine replacing every recurrence of the word “minimalism” in the literature with “that steady-pulse, doodle-doodle style of Steve Reich and Philip Glass.” Of course, even that becomes a term, just a cumbersome one, and if you forbid terms, you really forbid generalization. So now you have four pieces written in the 1960s - Music in Fifths, Piano Phase, Philomel, and In C - and you are not allowed to say that one of them stands out from the other three, you are forced to describe each individually. It would save so many words to say, Three of those pieces are minimalist and one serialist, and a cultured person would understand you - but no, no, that would falsify the sacred particularities of each piece. You’d gain insight from hearing survivals of the style galant in Mozart’s rondos, but you can no longer say that - you can only refer over and over to a recurrence of quick 6/8 meter and a certain type of figuration. No more do you get to divide Stravinsky’s output into Russian, neoclassic, and 12-tone periods - just a continuum in which each piece merits its own description.

    In general, two kinds of people make up musical terms: composers and music historians. I am both - or rather, I was hired as the latter because as a “Downtowner” (another term) I have no credibility as the former, and please don’t mention my little charade to the administration. Musicology is alleged to be a science of some kind (thus the “-ology” suffix), and part of its science is dividing up a gigantic chaos of historical phenomena into manageable bits based on similarity and contrast. As the first person to write a book about Nancarrow I had to come up with terms (“convergence point”) with which to analyze his canons, or else I would have gotten lost in a sea of awkward verbiage (imagine “that point at which all the voices coincide on the same analogous note in their isomorphic sequences” over and over on every page). Writing a book that focused on American music of the 1980s and 1990s when no one had done so before, I was obliged by the demands of the task to separate composers into categories based on similarity. The term “postminimalism” was already in the air, and the late Rob Schwartz had used it as a chapter heading - I just tightened up the definition. “Totalism” was a word coined by the composers themselves. I didn’t just go to a few concerts as a critic to hone my own definitions; as a musicologist I studied an entire file cabinet’s worth of home-bound scores elicited from the composers.

    Terminology is the musicologist’s creative medium. Get too creative and the term won’t stick to the phenomena, but not evocative enough and it will lack resonance. No one pretends that terms are perfect. Some are so broad and contradictory in application as to be stumbling blocks, like “classical.” “Neoclassic” usually really connotes “neobaroque,” but every cultured person knows that and makes allowances. Luckily, terms come and go in a very clear survival of the fittest. “Postromantic” used to be useful for distinguishing Mahler and Strauss from the generation of Brahms and Wagner, but has fallen out of favor, as has “Fauvism” for the primitive style of Stravinsky and... well, perhaps that’s why it didn’t survive. One interesting recent development, acquiesced to by even the term-haters, is that “modern,” which used to just mean “up to date,” is increasingly bracketed for the challenging, dissonant music of the mid-20th century. We teach terminology, -isms, in the classroom, and we’re not likely to stop - for the very good reasons that we would become more verbose, we would be able to say less, and we would sound stupider.

    Of course, artists don’t like thinking about terms. Nothing is more fatal to creativity than to already know the answer before you frame the question. Artists have good reason to be suspicious about what terms you yoke them to, because terms wield power. Tom Johnson, a critic, was the only composer who ever flatly called himself a minimalist, and I consider myself more or less a totalist. But I don’t think, as I start each piece, “Now, how to once again embody the principles of totalism?!” Only an idiot would do that. Kyle the composer couldn’t care less whether his piece turns out to be what Kyle the historian and critic calls totalist. It’s not an artist’s business to think about terms - unless needed for sometimes very practical career purposes, and even then not while in the act of creating. Still, I find it sort of hilarious that just now, as composers run from terms as though they carried viruses, the young pop musicians are churning out new terms almost monthly - jungle, illbient, drum and bass, liquid funk, and many others I can’t remember and that those who use them can’t even seem to distinguish in meaning when asked. What are the classical composers so afraid of that the pop musicians have so much fun playing with? I thought we were invited to learn from the pop musicians.

    So rail against terminology, rail, rail, rail, rail!! Everyone expects it of artists. Critics, expunge “minimalism,” “neoclassicism,” “empfindsamer stil” from your vocabulary, and see if you enjoy being less literate. But I believe that in this era of exponentially expanding numbers of composers, the opportunity for chaos is so great that the need for terminology will become more important than ever. For - and here’s my one sane opinion, in case you had lost all hope that I retain any grasp of reality - it is unimaginable that some mainstream style is going to coalesce in the forseeable future. And also undesirable - can you imagine 50,000 composers writing in the same style? Jesus, it’d be like the 17th century cubed. You’d have to distinguish John Aloysius Brown’s Ricercar No. 27 in E-flat from John Lothario Brown’s Ricercar No. 27 in E-flat by the fact that one uses mutes. The obvious current in culture today, vastly facilitated by the internet, is toward greater fragmentation of subcultures. And subcultures need to be identified, and distinguished - defined, which is not the same as frozen or calcified or engraved in granite. The pop musicians are on the case. But you classical musicians, rail! Rail! Unless the culture as a whole lapses into barbarism, those oh-so-beside-the-point terms, -isms, categories, style names, will continue to be used, and will multiply. They’re how we make sense of our world.

    I await, with amusement, your undoubted unanimous dissent. I’ll call you the “antitermists.”

    READER: Big Ideas? How About Melody?
    By John N. McBaine
    posted @ 7:25 am

    In answer to ArtsJournal.Com's apparently serious, and thus pretentious
    question "[W]hether or not it is still possible for a Big Idea to
    animate classical music" may I offer the following as a possibilty:
    Melody.........singable, danceable, hummable, organ-grindable,
    uplifting, happiness-making, inspiring, lasting and eternal Melody.  read more

    To Kyle Gann
    By Kyle MacMillan
    posted @ 8:05 am

    Here I go, jumping back into the blog. Don't count me among the "antitermists." So, what does that make me, a "termist"? None of us like to be pigeonholed into categories, and no one comfortably fits any one category. Just look at the so-called impressionist painters. Edgar Degas is light years away from Claude Monet in so many ways. And they are both quite different than Edouard Manet. Yet they are all lumped under the heading of impressionism. That said, categories are essential. We must have them to have any chance of making at least some sense of all the currents that move through every art form. Indeed, one of the most important tasks of a critic is to be a cartographer, to map new creative territories. And just as Lewis & Clark named rivers and streams as they went on their journey, so, too, must we create terms and categories for movements. No, such terms will never be perfect. They will always be controversial. But they are at least a starting point.  

    What does it all mean?
    By Kyle MacMillan
    posted @ 8:11 am
    As Alex Ross says in his most recent entry, it has been quite stimulating to read these exchanges. But I've been wondering what the broader implications are of this process. Yes, hundreds and even thousands of people have been reading this blog as it has gone along, but the diffusion has still been relatively modest, considering that popular stories just on the Denver Post website sometimes get more than 100,000 hits. It seems like this blog raises some interesting questions for us as critics. Was all of this a fun kind of insider exercise for us and a few of our closest readers? Or is there some way that we can apply this to our writing on an on-going basis? While we as critics are quite obviously passionate about the subjects we have debated in this blog, how do we get other people join in that passion? It is hard in the average metropolitan daily to really delve into any of these issues any depth, especially considering that so much of our time is spent doing such basics as best bets, previews and daily criticism. And perhaps that is what this blog's most important function is -- challenging all of us to constantly try to find ways to engage in just these kinds of discussions on our own newspaper or magazine pages and make them meaningful to our readers.   

    Kyle to Kyle (or vice versa)
    By Kyle Gann
    posted @ 8:37 am
    I'm surprised to receive even a half-sympathetic response, but people named Kyle are so... reasonable, aren't they? Certainly lots and lots of people don't like being pigeonholed, but a few have - notably Henry Cowell, whom I consider my guiding spirit in so many ways, and who once, going a lot further than I ever would, divided up all American composers of the 1930s into 13 categories. (Antheil got a category all to himself, but it was hardly complimentary.) But I'm just not capable of thinking of it the way you describe it. For me, an -ism isn't a drawer to stuff composers in, but a light, a luminous idea, that gets reflected through one crystal or another at various times. For me, the fact that Degas and Manet both reflected the luminous cultural moment that was Impressionism, and came up with such different results anyway, enhances their individuality - much more than if they were just presented among 2000 other French painters, more than if they had painted in isolation with no peer contact. I guess it's safe to say that there's a wide range in the extent to which musicians connect music with words, and musicians like me in that respect - I hear music, and words flood into my head - seem extremely rare at the moment. But while I'm not surprised there aren't more composers like that, I would have thought the experience was almost universal for critics. And it clearly isn't. I'm a natural-born realist in a nominalist world.

    READER: Gann's Got It Right
    By Jan Herman
    posted @ 8:37 am
    Regarding [Kyle Gann's] entry titled Leave No Term Unstoned:   What a great post, especially for us non-specialists... Once upon a time, back in 1971 I think it was and in another life, I published a little book called "The Identical Lunch," which is based on a musical score by Knowles. The amusing text by Corner is about a tunafish lunch and its variations... I have no idea what "ism" applies, but maybe [Kyle] or someone else could come up with one.  read more

    Reality Bites
    By Andrew Druckenbrod
    posted @ 9:19 am

    To Kyle: I agree with you wholeheartedly about the ills of categorization (which was mostly begun in the 18th century by those enlightened Europeans), but obviously the main reason we use these terms as critics is to write about music for our jobs.

    I did not become a critic because of some desperate need to flood the world with my opinions, I am a critic because it allows me to listen and think about music. I am sure you will agree that if you had it your way, you would do nothing but listen to music all day and night. Well, you would compose, too, but I am not a composer but a musicologist by training and I love learning, listening, breaking down and reading about music (old and new). I don't even overly care if I am wrong or right for history's sake about a composer I pan or praise. (The panel and audience at Aspen should realize that most critics don't wake up each day thinking how they will categorize a composer or box in someone's creativity. We mostly just love music!)

    I also like telling others about music, but obviously being a critic in a major daily newspaper is not the best way to do it (teaching would be better, i suppose); being a daily music critic is as much about biography, news and experience as music.

    So, my question to you is, taking as a truism (hah!) that the -isms and categories are not ideal, and the fact that, in a mainstream publication, music examples, audio extracts and musical terminology aren’t feasible, how do we describe music quickly and succinctly to people? Key here is that we realize that in our desire to be guiltless in our writing, we critics can often be selfish and write for ourselves rather than have the best interests of the readers in mind. What works at some cocktail party, after-concert bar or even in a blog among experts in the field doesn't work in a mass media -- in any field.

    I have worked hard to come up with alternatives to isms and categories, and I think I occasionally succeed (I still use them at times, though, because distinctions give readers a reference point). I think the composers I cover are appreciative of the thought I spend on this and words i use. But I would love to hear your solution, since it is easy to break down a system; to come up with something in its place is more difficult. And remember, you often get to write with more space than daily critics get, to describe music. This is not a challenge but a query about how you do it or might recommend we write about new music -- the more ideas here the better.

    Some tail-end thoughts
    By John von Rhein
    posted @ 10:34 am

    The problem with weighing in late in what has turned out to be an absorbing round-robin discussion (more of these, please, O Gatekeeper McLennan) is that mop-ups are never as fun as first strikes. I've probably missed some of the more interesting thrust-and-parry along the way. But, at the risk of repeating what somebody else may have said, here are my random three cents' worth:

    Rather than worry about Big Ideas and where they're coming from, let's create the societal conditions that allow many schools of composition to flourish and composers to do their best work. I don't see high culture, low culture or anything in between as a talking point on any of our presidential candidates' agendas. This would be the time to bring the abysmal state of music education in our public schools, and its depressing ramifications for future generations of music consumers, into this discussion.

    Being reasonably conversant with classical music, its traditions and history used to be considered one of the marks of an educated person. No longer. (Just try asking any self-styled intellectual you meet socially to name a few living classical composers.) How can we even begin to expect audiences to "get" new music if they're so poorly educated in (hence indifferent to) music that even the standard repertory is like this exotic foreign tongue to them? No wonder our symphony orchestras are going in for spoon-feeding them. Daniel Barenboim said it best: "Music has lost a large part of its place in society." Full stop.

    It's really not that important, in the larger scheme of things, whether this critic thinks a contemporary piece is good and another does not. History will sift the gold from the dross. What worries me is the increasing tendency of symphony orchestra artistic administrators, conductors and others who determine what audiences hear to follow the path of least resistance -- i.e., if a segment of the audience reacts negatively to a "difficult" new piece or composer, let's not program more music by that composer for fear of losing our public or alienating the real or potential newbies. Shrinking audiences have made classical music more market-driven than ever, and I fear we are going to have lots of bland, ultra-safe, unadventurous, feel-good programming, in many quarters, to thank for it, for many years to come.

    Re Scott Cantrell's interesting list of challenges: "Has any opera newer than Billy Budd (1951) come close to joining the standard international repertory?" Well, yes. American operas by Barber, Menotti, Floyd, Ward, Bernstein, Glass, Argento, Weill, Blitzstein and Sondheim (to stretch the definition a bit) turn up regularly here and in theaters around the world. (I haven't even mentioned the new operas that have come out of the UK, France, Italy, Spain, etc., since 1951.) Permanently enshrined in the repertory? Ah, that's something else again. But we can't predict that, at this close range.  


    READER: Who Said Anything About Pop Musicians?
    By Garth Trinkl
    posted @ 11:47 am
    Gentlemen, may I respectfully Recall the Question: 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? ... I see no reference to you being invited to learn from pop musicians.  [ArtsJournal managing editor] Douglas McLennan, in fact, in his "No Apocalypse Now", and in his cited "Newsweek" column, asked the musical community to learn from the research and development structures of the technology, business, medical, and film and publishing creative communities.  I recall no mention made to learning from pop musicians... read more

    To Andrew
    By Kyle Gann
    posted @ 12:50 pm
    So, my question to you is, taking as a truism (hah!) that the -isms and categories are not ideal, and the fact that, in a mainstream publication, music examples, audio extracts and musical terminology aren’t feasible, how do we describe music quickly and succinctly to people? - Druckenbrod

    Well, Andrew, very good question. I know what you’re up against in a daily paper, because I remember writing about an early music group in the Chicago Sun-Times many years ago and not being allowed to use the word “madrigal” for fear someone might think it was something too sexy. (“Song” was substituted.) For that matter, within this century I tried to refer to that hallowed electronic music genre “squeakfart music” in the New York Times, who would not buy my argument that that was a universally standardized musicological term - and one that’s fairly clear in its connotations the first time you read it, too. (All music-descriptive terms should be so onomotopoetic.) Daily-paper reviews are probably not the best ground on which to begin a new campaign.

    Let’s go back to John’s complaint that we’re each describing a different part of the elephant. If you’re the expert on trunk music and I’m the expert on tail music and Josh Kosman (where is he?) knows all about ear music, we’re in a position to start on a complete picture. One thing we can do is accept and, in whatever venue we can, capitalize on each others’ terminology. I heard about Spectral Music for years before I got a real chance to find out what it was and how it works, and it bugs me and fascinates me to hear that there’s a musical movement out there that I’m not in on. I interrogate my students under bright lights trying to learn the distinction between “jungle” and “drum and bass.” We’re all in different parts of the country, and regional styles do still arise. The Bonk festival in Tampa nurtures an idiom that I once characterized, after hearing five or six pieces, as “long, meandering streams of consciousness with frequent pop music/pop culture references thrown in.” Hopefully the critic for the Tampa paper could do better. Pursuant to the success of New York’s Bang on a Can festival, every now and then you’ll hear a reference to “Bang on a Can music,” which is literally meaningless except insofar as it connotes “music considered hip in New York.” Still, one jumps to a vague conclusion about what that sounds like.

    Whereas if we decide from some noble purity of mind to preserve the individuality of an experience by refusing to draw connections, then the description of the piece you heard last night isn’t going to mean much to me until I hear the same piece, which, given the torrent of new music out there, may well be never. Rejection of terminology is rejection of literacy and rejection of a shared cultural discourse. Tell me a piece you heard sounds like Bonk music but more minimalist, and either I’ll sort of get it, or I’ll be intrigued enough to look up the Bonk festival and learn something. We have to start somewhere. I started with postminimalism and totalism, but I’m not attached to those terms - someone else find a more intelligent way to parse out the scene and I’ll start all over. If you refer to a movement I’ve never heard of, I’ll probably figure you’re smart enough that there’s some kind of musical phenomenon there, even if subsequent study may suggest that it should be defined differently.

    And as a composer I don’t think this is, in general, a falsification of the artistic experience. I don’t start to write a piece out of thin air, with my head completely cleansed of the sounds of everyone else’s music. I hear a piece, I write a piece in (positive or negative) response to it, often trying to recapture effects I’ve heard in other music but in my own language. Art is a currency of culture, not something that exists in a vaccuum. Brahms addressed Beethoven in his music, Schoenberg responded to Brahms, and it doesn’t diminish Schoenberg to bring that up. The Harry Partches who start music over from scratch exist, but they’re pretty rare, and even he was trying to recreate the Yaqui Indian music and Chinese lullabies of his youth, merged with ancient Greek theater. I’ve often thought critics should be more creative in making comparisons, go out on a limb more often, and when I’ve gone way out on a limb, I’ve been praised for my insight more often than I’ve been condescended to for my ignorance. And if it’s the latter, who cares?

    I’m starting to ramble. Someone else want to take up the thread?

    By John Rockwell
    posted @ 1:35 pm

    This whole conversation has been fascinaing and fun, tho tiring, trying to digest all 213 entries from invited critics and readers (as of the outset of this posting). Maybe it's gone on too long: it's hard to avoid wearily reiterating one's basic positions; responding to every posting would mean the devolution of this whole affair into anarchy; it's come pretty close. I know, I know, some people are happy anarchists, but not me.

    Pace Nick Kenyon, Joan La Barbara et al., I started out by saying that big ideas were inevitably ex post facto, codifying and pedantifying (should be a word) what composers had already composed. I would like now to offer a final defense of them. As I've said before, music and ideas cross-pollinate. Clumsily applied terms and categories are not the same as the kind of big ideas that I think Doug was alluding to in his initial formulation, a formulation from which many of these postings have long since drifted.

    Which isn't all bad. It's been seductively compelling, sometimes a little painful, to read people picking away at one another, exposing their long-repressed prejudices. (It's also been instructive, as some interesting informatoon and listening hints have floated to the surface.) Still, that's the way free-ranging conversations go, and it's nice to see that the old animosities have a little kick to them.

    Since I've never participated in such a consveration before, one thing that's bemused me (maybe this is a big idea; come to think of it, it most definitely is one) is the interchange between print critics and those who express their opinions, here at least, online. Sure, writing for the NY Times gives me a forum. But online, eveyone is equal (except that Doug has rigged it to we have to "read more" to get all of the readers' input), and boy, have those who consider themselves marginalized LOVED getting their shots in. More power to them, say I, and many of their remarks, stripped of or imformed by their dyspepsia, have been just as trenchant as those by us professional pontificators. And for the print contingent, with all due respect, since I was one once, it's loverly not to have to contend with editors.

    I was particularly struck, self-involved as I am, by John Shaw's notion of the  premise of "All American Music" having been turned on its head. The way he read my book, and he was hardly all wrong, I wrote it perceiving the values of classical music, and establishment "uptown" classical new music at that, being dominant, and making the case for all the other musics to be allowed into the temple. Now, thinks Shaw, rock rules, and all the rest of us, very much including the classicals, are desperately, enviously trying to get some of what rock has (innovation, adulation, remuneration).

    I do not think it's gone that far, not even counting the myopia of the uptown composers Kyle encounters who aren't even aware that they have a problem. But the onrush of the pop sensibility, at least in the US of A, has been so precipitous that it's altered/corrupted everything. Today, if I were to write a new book like AAM, I'd take a very different stance, and part of my argument would be to defend non-commercial art. I don't think and never will think that commercial art is inherently bad, as Adorno and so many others have felt. But the seductions of accessibility and outreach and money and celebrity are so extreme that they are changing everything. Even, in a particularly vulgar and philistine form, print journalism. Just like Cyndi Lauper said.

    So: Ideas count; pop's worth listening to by everyone, but not kow-towing to; world music is blessedly everywhere, and MUST be listened to; technology is transforming everything, thrillingly; and criticism is, or should be, as humbling as it is empowering.

    Footnote to Kyle: All critics traffick in cliches, but I didn't quite do the blind-men-and-the elephant thing. My image was of a bunch of blind people groping ONE PART of the elephant, unaware there there were other parts, let alone what the one part was.

    Footnote to John Shaw: For what it's worth, and it's not worth much, but hell: all my father's family for generations were farmers around Kalamazoo, until my father's grandfather moved into town to be a carpenter. His son ran the Kalamazoo Tank & Silo Company, and his son (my father) was a lawyer who moved to Boston, Washington, Berlin and San Francisco. I grew up there, but visited Gull Lake in the summers.

    Late to the party
    By Joshua Kosman
    posted @ 2:09 pm
    To paraphrase Lloyd Bridges, I picked the wrong week to leave town for my brother's wedding. You folks seem to have picked over the carcass of this subject with admirable, indeed terrifying, thoroughness during my absence. At this late date, I'd just like to stress a point that has been alluded to numerous times but perhaps never singled out for emphasis; please forgive me if it has and I overlooked it. That is the importance of the audience in the artistic economy (not to mention the market economy). As a critic, my sole allegiance is to the audience of which I'm a part (this is my fundamental difference from Kyle or, um, Virgil Thomson); so I like to keep in mind that any important musical idea is going to have to be worked out at some level in collaboration with the present listenership -- which means there has to be one, being addressed in a decipherable language and doing its part to listen.

    This business of spotting Big Ideas, as several posters have pointed out, is an exercise conducted in the future perfect tense. And the problem with many of the big ideas of the past century (i.e. modernism and its dire offshoots) is that they've been erected with an eye to the future, cutting living listeners out of the feedback loop. Milan Kundera has a wonderful line somewhere (which I copied out years ago and promptly lost -- if anyone can steer me back to it I'd be hugely grateful) decrying the business of "truckling" to the judgments of the future, which are always stronger than those of the present; there's an implicit analogy to the act of collaborating with repressive political regimes.

    That's gotta change, and my main source of optimism about music in the coming century is that it is changing. In fact, the main thing that "classical" music can re-learn from pop -- more important than tonal systems or subtle formal plans -- is how to renegotiate its age-old responsive relationship to the audience. The pure form of "Who cares if you listen?" Babbittry has been dead for a while, but we don't yet have a fully worked-out model to replace it. When we do, other things will flow.

    READER: But What of the Squeakfartists?
    By John Shaw
    posted @ 2:44 pm
    The distinction between live music & recorded is [fuzzy]. Pop is clearer about this than classical.  Records influenced pop almost from the get-go; the limitations of the 3-minute side of a 78-rpm disc dictated form. Pop has evolved such that records are primary, live performance secondary. Classical, that’s not the case.  Live is primary, and most sound systems can’t even cope with the wide dynamic range of Ravel’s “Bolero,” to pick an obvious example. Except.  Except for the tape collagists and Squeakfartists and others who rely on high technology. Sorry we haven’t heard from the Squeakfartists and tape collagists in this dialogue. read more

    READER: Some Simple Gratitude
    By Mark Stryker
    posted @ 4:07 pm

    Having just returned to the Motor City from a Maine vacation - where my wife and I were forced by state officials to leave after it was discovered that we had, apparently, eaten every single lobster in the Penobscot Bay - I just wanted to express my gratitude to my colleagues (and Doug) for such a thoughtful and stimulating discussion. How the most prolific of you managed to get any other work done in the last week is a complete mystery to me. I am still too busy catching up after two weeks away from the office to venture into the fray in any substantive way, but I did want to say that collectively your posts have clarified my thinking on key issues, reaffirmed my own prejudices at times, convinced me I was horribly misguided at other times, introduced several new and intriguing composers to me and opened many synapses along the way. (I suppose marijuana would have the same effect, but my source has dried up. Um, if John Ashcroft is snooping around here, that's a joke.) Anyway, thanks gang. I appreciate it.

    Editor's Note: The author is the classical music critic for the Detroit Free Press.

    A minor quibble
    By Scott Cantrell
    posted @ 5:01 pm

    John von Rhein quibbles with me for suggesting that no opera newer than Britten's 1951 Billy Budd has truly become part of the international standard repertory. I guess it comes down to how one defines standard repertory, but I do question the composers he cites.

    Yeah, Barber's Vanessa and Floyd's Susannah have had occasional performances beyond our shores, and the latter is popular in colleges and conservatories, but would any European consider them standard rep? Unlikely. Robert Ward, Marc Blitzstein and Dominick Argento aren't exactly repertory staples on either side of the pond. Menotti and Glass seem to have sunk in popularity. That leaves Candide, which is only five years newer than Billy Budd, and even it has hardly the currency of, say, the Janacek operas.

    What I learned
    By Scott Cantrell
    posted @ 5:15 pm

    With a twinkle in my eye, I note what I've learned from our boggy and sometimes cranky blog:

    1) Those New Yorkers sure are smart. They seem to know everything.

    2) We provincials don't seem to know much.

    3) We're sure of big things only after they've clubbed us upside o' the head (as we say in Texas).

    4) There are so many movements and "isms" afoot now that it's hard to see clear directions, but...

    5) World music is having an impact...

    6) As is pop music. And...

    7) Pace John R., there are reasons we have editors.

    Regards to all.


    New music game theory
    By Joshua Kosman
    posted @ 5:45 pm
    After a hasty and none-too-systematic hoovering of the week's posts, I'm surprised to find myself haunted by Kyle Gann's anecdote about the Austrian burghers who faithfully attended each year's Graz festival to hear music they hated. Yes, it's wonderful that they felt easy about asserting that the music was always terrible, and that they didn't seem to regard hearing crappy music as either a tragedy or an outrage. Still, the steady waste of their time struck me as kind of sad; weren't there good books they could've been reading?

    But something about them kept nagging at me -- a reminder of something that I couldn't quite place -- and I just remembered what it was. It has to do with the construct in game theory known as the Prisoner's Dilemma. Short version (details can be found in Robert Axelrod's short and wonderfully readable book The Evolution of Cooperation) : Two players each independently choose between two moves, defecting and cooperating (the titles come from the traditional flavortext about two criminal suspects being grilled separately by police). Your best payoff comes if you rat out your partner by defecting while he cooperates, but you both do better by cooperating (with each other, that is, by keeping mum under the hot lights) than by mutually selling each other out.

    What's your best strategy if you play repeatedly? Turns out that it's very difficult to do better than to follow a strategy called TIT FOR TAT, which tells you to cooperate on your first turn and thereafter do whatever your opponent just did. This strategy has many virtues, including simplicity, "niceness" (it's never the first to defect), and so on. But one fundamental virtue is its responsiveness -- the fact that it takes into account what the other player has done. By contrast, simpler but non-responsive strategies like "Always cooperate," "Always defect" or "Flip a coin" don't fare as well.

    Kyle's Grazers, it seems to me, are playing the "Always cooperate" strategy -- to their own and everybody's detriment. Doesn't matter what kind of crap gets played at the festival, they're there. What kind of a cooperative relationship between artist and audience does that engender? The message it sends is dismayingly clear -- I'm not about to make any critical judgments in a way that really counts. Sure, I'll grumble, but I'm always there. They're the inverse of the "Always defect" people, who walk out of the concert as soon as a piece by a living composer looms or who don't show up at all. Both strategies are equally unresponsive, and both, I think, are fundamentally indifferent to the music.

    READER: What Is Live Performance, Anyway?
    By Steve Layton
    posted @ 7:37 pm
    The ascendancy of recorded music for our picture of classical music, both new
    and old, is definitely a "big idea" worth paying attention to. Yes, it's been
    going on for a while now. But not only does it continue to increase its
    dominance over how we get to know the whole historical tapestry laid out behind
    us, as well as how we experience much current acoustic music (it's the only way
    I can know almost any Grisey, Rihm, late Feldman or Cage, etc.), it's creating a
    whole form of music that *intentionally* exists nowhere else. read more

    READER: Eclecticism Is Better Anyway
    By Hale Jacob
    posted @ 7:41 pm
    I have grown fond of the idea that we are living in a time without a universally-understood, glaringly-obvious big idea. It doesn’t mean that we suffer from a dearth of salient ideas. The future of music in the past has been driven by the younger generation’s reaction to established practices. I would like to think that the
    current atmosphere is an appropriate (and apparently effective) reaction to this classifying and labeling tradition. It reminds me of a tactic we used to employ in high school to ditch campus during lunch. We would gather as a mass on the corner, and on the count of three, take off running in every direction so that it was impossible for the lone school administrator to chase after all of us at once. Music history textbooks relate a similar scenario for the latter half of the twentieth century, when composers followed no logical course (as they supposedly had before), but instead split off in numerous directions, leaving the writers of history scrambling to follow the threads and make sense of it all. But isn’t it more fun this way? read more

    READER: Classical Music Doesn't Fit The PR Mold
    By Dennis Bathory-Kitsz
    posted @ 9:21 pm

    I don't think talking about marketing is off-thread as Andrew Druckenbrod suggested. Here is why I brought it into this discussion: Cultural Big Ideas simply aren't Big if what they affect is a diminishingly small part of the culture. There just aren't enough ideas to go around. They all feel equally interesting in their small way... The cultural catastrophe for Big Ideas is evident: We cannot find any because there is no context within which they can be Big. Critics write lukewarm praise or dismissal, audiences (as was mentioned) have been trained to quash their reactions, and fiscal circumstances have relegated the enthusiasm-engendering pieces to be played out of town or at the academy or in the countryside -- where they are guaranteed to be forgotten. And, in the end, there is no risk (particulary an economic one) which demands return on investment. read more

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


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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... More

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?

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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)

Final Disinformation

- 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)

All Posts


Greg Sandow
  The Wall Street Journal
 - To Justin: Hermetic

 - Performance ideas
 - Truly big classical

Another view

Wynne Delacoma
  Chicago Sun-Times
 - Composer bashing, female
    critics, form and content
 - Big Ideas--Who Needs Them?

Alex Ross
  The New Yorker
 - Clarification, Departure
 - The New New Thing
 - Provocation!
 - To AC Douglas
 - Pop Innovation
A Potential Goldmine
 - To Rockwell: Styles, Not

 - Listening for Passionate

Kyle Gann
  Village Voice
 - 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

Justin Davidson
 - Thanks, Kyle
 - proposal
 - 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?

John Rockwell
  The New York Times
 - Reply to Kyle and a Plea
 - Arghhh, or however you
    spell it
 - The Magpie
 - Brahms and Wagner
Question for Kyle
 - To Alex, Justin: the pedant
    at work

 - Initial Entry

Scott Cantrell
  Dallas Morning News
 - What's success?
 - Pop music precendent
 - Multiculturalism
 - Fragmentation
 - Female Critics
 - Movements & Media
A Blurry Patchwork

Charles Ward
  Houston Chronicle
 - 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

Anne Midgette
  The New York Times
 - What's the big idea?
 - A Few Responses To
    Other Postings
 - Back to Fragmentation
    for a Minute

 - Gender footnote
 - Another preamble

Andrew Druckenbrod
  Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
 - Composers are Composers
    but Distinctions are
 - No apology to pop and

 - Taking Issue With The

John von Rhein
  Chicago Tribune

Kyle MacMillan
  Denver Post

Joshua Kosman
  San Francisco Chronicle


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)

Summing Up
- 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


- Discography of Minimalist and
    Totalist music

- Kyle Gann on Post-Minimalism
- Kyle Gann: Following the
    Classical Script


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