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Critical Conversation
Classical Music Critics on the Future of Music

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


Friday Friday, August 6

    Over and out - an anti-rant rant
    By Justin Davidson
    posted @ 7:05 am

                What a weird medium this is. I’m going to miss this conversation, even with all the free-associative monologues and hurt feelings. I went to an all-Mozart concert the other night, enjoyed it hugely and thought about how distant that experience was from our esoteric discussions here. But since that performance represented the rebirth of a festival that had been getting dustier and more arthritic over the years, it gave me a shot of optimism with which to face the future. So here are some Panglossian predictions:

    1)     The term “avant-garde,” as it applies to music, will come to seem as antiquated as “horseless carriage.” This is because composers recognize the rewards, spiritual and worldly of communicating with an audience rather than keeping several steps ahead. Along the same lines, the distinction between composition and entertainment will break down further. The so-called pop that classical music critics praise tends to be of the brow-furrowing, earth-moving kind, because it picks up the sense of originality, intricacy, and profundity we tend to look for in the classical realm (and rarely find). But one thing classical composers could learn from pop is a sense of fun. We’re always asking where our Beethovens are, but what about our Rossinis, our Chabriers? Who’s writing the 21st Century “Bolero?” Mozart thought of himself as an entertainer as well as an artist, but for some reason even John Williams goes all dour and Olympian whenever he’s not writing for the movies. Not to belabor an infatuation, but I think Golijov is one person who composes with a sense of audible joy.

    2)     The orchestral and presenting world will become less mired in the past – or in a cramped, repetitive version of the past. Go ahead, giggle. But one reason things change slowly in the orchestral world is that conductors have such long careers. Well, they have to end eventually. Lorin Maazel may have no specific taste in contemporary music, but his successor will. Herbert Blomstedt’s successor does, and so does Zubin Mehta’s. Under Simon Rattle, the Berlin Philharmonic is now a major force in new music.

    3)     The path from the fringes to the mainstream will become easier and quicker. Over the long run, the commitment of such places as Carnegie Hall and Lincoln Center and the San Francisco Symphony and Disney Hall to expanding the palette of what is presentable on a major concert stage will have an effect elsewhere. Let’s not forget that the Brooklyn Academy of Music helped make the cream of SoHo safe for the rest of America . Yesterday’s mavericks are today’s establishment.

    4)     Concert audiences will not shrivel up and blow away. We’ve all been fretting over all those gray heads for years and years and years. But as most of us are acutely aware from looking in the mirror, the gray-haired population is being constantly restocked. New audiences do exist, and they are being found. There are more orchestras, chamber ensembles, opera companies, soloists, acoustic-electric bands, saxophone quartets and sampling keyboard wizards than there were a generation ago, and they’re not all howling on an empty mesa. Music education is now an important part of almost every presenting and performing organization and while that’s no substitute for a standard in-school curriculum, it’s a start.

    5)     The classical music world will stop worrying about its loss of prestige and retool to function as one segment of a much vaster arts and entertainment universe. That will mean collaborating more with artists from other disciplines, jettisoning the antiquated etiquette and Edwardian concert costumes (Please! Please!), and rethinking the rhetoric. That last one is our department.

    6)     Orchestral marketing people will come to understand that . . . Nah, never mind.

    7)     Politicians will recognize that subsidizing the arts is crucial to . . . Nope, scratch that too.

    8)     The American Federation of Musicians will confront the realities of modern . . . Okay, okay, forget it.

    9)     Josh Groban will fade away. (A guy can dream, no?)


    One final thought about movements and ideas. This is a big country, and isms have a way of rattling around in it. Doug’s “critical mass” of the past tended to coalesce within tightly defined physical boundaries: Vienna , say, or the Sixth arondissement, or Greenwich Village . Thomas Adès’ vertigo-inducing rise from whiz kid to crown prince of British music shows that in a small island country, at least, something of this sort can still happen.

    But the U.S. is and always has been different from those places (I don’t count the Village as part of the U.S. ) – more decentralized, more diffuse. That’s not a bad thing. It allows ideas to go dormant for a while and resurface when they are needed. Look at Lou Harrison, whose music seems more current now than it did 30 years ago (thanks in part to Mark Morris). Or look outside of music at the extraordinary story of the sculptor Lee Bontecou, who intoxicated the art world in the late 1960s, then dropped out of sight in 1971 – and reemerged with a whole body of unknown work that has been traveling to the country’s major museums. This is a country where great talents and big ideas can get lost for a while. But they re-emerge eventually, and their influence is no less dramatic for having been delayed.

    READER: Where Are The Young Voices?
    By Corey Dargel
    posted @ 8:21 am
    At the risk of coming across as ageist, I want to point out that this
    conversation on the Future of Music is missing a vital element --
    contributions from young people. Granted, I don't know exactly how old
    everyone is, but with the exception of a very few Reader contributions, I
    have infered that most of the contributors are at least ten years older than
    I am (I am 26). The future of music is in the hands of the younger
    generation, and if this conversation is to be "Fair and Balanced," it should
    include their perspectives. read more

    Final Disinformation

    By Kyle Gann
    posted @ 8:41 am
    Well maybe I hang out in the seedier parts of the internet, but this has been as civilized a forum as I’ve ever been involved in. People ask where we found the time. I wrote my longest post in the wee hours of the night, kept awake by a recalcitrant tuna steak from a restaurant in which I probably should have had the foresight not to order the tuna rare. It may have sounded like it.

    As my inevitable final note, I’ll merely mention that when composers get together to discuss the problems of music today, they bring up almost exactly the same issues that the critics have here. Except for new directions in how to stage old operas. That one they don’t talk about. But they discourse at great length on how to make music more relevant, how to market it better, how and when to address social issues, how to create new musical forms and formats which fill actual needs in current society. Their major proposed solutions are most often:

    1. Taking the idioms of pop music as a basis for composition, to give listeners a familiar starting point (this is what I curated my New-Music Listening Page to demonstrate, which I plan to take down tomorrow);

    2. Creating music installations as an interactive technological experience, so that audience members become participants rather than passive observers (this mostly under-the-radar movement has racked up a considerable chain of successes, including Laurie Spiegel’s Music Mouse software and Trimpin’s listener-played acoustic installations);

    3. Avoiding the orchestra world as offering insufficient rehearsal time for meaningful innovation, predictably hostile built-in audiences, and little relevance to larger society (though occasional new orchestras devoted entirely to new music, like Dogs of Desire, offer hope in this direction).

    Despite the prestige-clinging of a few, composers in my circles are generally more than willing to take responsibility for making connections to audiences. So I hope that critics will hereafter feel free to think of composers, by and large, not as foot-draggers, but as allies in the good fight. I repeat, there is nothing systemically wrong with the composing community. It’s just a few bad apples, whose actions don’t reflect the true values of new music. Really. And no, I will not release the memos in which I allegedly authorized acts of Eurocentric elitism. They’re classified.


    [UPDATE: That last bit was a joke. I don't know that anyone got it.]

    READER: To Justin: Art can be entertaining, but it is not entertainment
    By Arthur J. Sabatini
    posted @ 8:42 am

    "But one thing classical composers could learn from pop is a sense of fun...Mozart thought of himself as an entertainer as well as an artist.." Justin Davidson

    No. Unlike in Mozart's era, in 20th century America - and now in the rest of the world - entertainment is a business and an industry, and except for a few powerful artists (often for a short amount of time), it the business of entertainment that determines its rules, reception and quality, at the center of which is the most researched, defined and marketed product: fun. read more

    READER: re:Where Are The Young Voices?
    By Andrea La Rose
    posted @ 9:21 am

    I hope at almost 32 that I still possibly qualify as a young(ish) voice. Here's a letter I wrote to Alex Ross not too long ago in response to a New Yorker article, that I think addresses Mr. Dargel's question...  read more

    READER: To Corey Dargel and Kyle Gann
    By Garth Trinkl
    posted @ 9:21 am
    Corey, I realize that young composers, such as yourself, may feel that this conversation has only touched upon a few of your immediate interests, and concerns, as working composers today.  I wish that you had encouraged some of your under - 30 colleagues to participate here, along with you.  There is still time.  read more

    READER: Thank you to all
    By Jennifer Higdon
    posted @ 10:10 am

    Ladies and Gentlemen: Critical Conversation has truly been a fascinating read. Thank you all for your thoughts and observations...you have really made me think. And though I refer to give my answer in the music that I write, I was reminded of a recent concert at the Caramoor Festival, in which both John Rockwell and myself were participants. At this concert, he expressed his concerns about the lack of a Big Idea. I had responded that I find this actually exciting, because I can get up everyday and try something new or different in the music that I write.  read more

    READER: The purpose of music
    By Linda Rogers
    posted @ 10:46 am

    During two years as General Manager of Soundstreams Canada, a new music concert presenter in Toronto, Canada--the conversation we hosted that most animated the music community here was a lecture given by Sir John Tavener. He was in town at our invitation for a concert we were presenting of his music. It might be added that unlike the small attendance at most new music concerts, this was an SRO concert. We crowded about 1200 into an 1100 seat cathedral and had to send hundreds home in disappointment. Clearly this is a voice that is reaching people musically.  read more

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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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