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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)

Saturday, July 31
    READER: Two Important Threads
    By Jonathan Gresl
    posted @ 07/31/2004 6:01 pm

    I see two important threads of importance which haven't really been elucidated. One is the actual composer and his/her composing, and new ideas therein. The other is the presentation of new (and old) music to the public, and the currentmusic marketplace, i.e. recording contracts, new music ensembles etc... read more

    READER: Why is it "Classical?"
    By Sophia Loke
    posted @ 07/31/2004 6:00 pm
    A question that has always been somewhere at the back of my mind just popped in: Why is it that we refer to classical music today as 'CLASSICAL' music in the first place?... read more

    To Justin: Hermetic music
    By Greg Sandow
    posted @ 07/31/2004 4:47 pm

    This is for Justin, though the way this blog moves, I feel I'm answering something from three years ago, not three days.

    Thanks, Justin for your thought about hermetic music -- that

    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.

    I think, Justin, that you've nailed something very important here. I might quibble that what you say is true of "composers," implying all or most or the most important of them, because the '50s were full of people writing in perfectly non-hermetic styles. Talk to Ned Rorem, or Carlisle Floyd, or Barber, or Menotti, or Leonard Bernstein about writing music "purely about itself."

    And then there was Cage, whose music was transcendently about something other than itself. But I do take your point -- a lot of the most notable, new, and above all prestigious music of that time appeared to be largely about itself.

    But why was that? And why did people back then -- and us now -- accept this development as something valid, important, good, or even reasonable? Especially when, as you note, it didn't happen in the other arts.

    Three quick observations:

    1. No composer ever cared more about hermetic -- though really a better word would be "formalist" -- compositional devices than Bach. And yet his music isn't hermetic. He wrote lots of it for everyday use (in church, especially). And, maybe even more important, a lot of it (like much Baroque music, if not most of it) takes off from popular dance rhythms of its time, which means that, in ways we can barely imagine now, the very sound of it connected with everyday life.

    2. The musical developments you talk about were part of a more global Big Idea, one that moved through many arts. In literature, the New Criticism was dominant, treating literary works as, in effect, simply words on paper, texts that could be studied on their own without reference to anything outside them. In visual art, there was Clement Greenberg's influential dictum that paintings were, essentially, nothing but paint on canvas. And yet neither painting nor literature got hermetic. The abstract expressionists, who were living examples of Greenberg's point (if not the inspiration for it), were adventurous, far more accessible than modernist music, and, eventually, quite popular.

    3. There was another Big Idea sweeping through the arts in the '50s, in many ways the opposite of anything hermetic or formalist, though in painting it could overlap with formalism. It was the idea of improvisation -- Jackson Pollock dripping and spattering paint without premeditation, very much as a physical act; Jack Kerouac writing On the Road in just three weeks, typing it on a roll of paper, so he wouldn't have to stop to change pages. Not to mention jazz, which was exploding with bebop, and can serve as a link between Kerouac and Pollock, since it served as a constant soundtrack for both of them. But where was this in music? It certainly never entered the mainstream, unless you want to count Gunther Schuller's "third stream" music, which was supposed somehow to unite classical and jazz, and never went anywhere. Maybe the most important musical figure who might exemplify this Idea was Cage, though he went about it in quite a different, less explosive, far less personally expressive way (which sort of robs it of its point, at least from the Beat or Pollock point of view). And Cage certainly never rocketed to fame with a rave review in The New York Times, as Kerouac did.

    So why did classical music become so much more formalist than other arts, and why did it resist this improvisatory wind? Of course, music, taken as a whole, didn't resist. There was jazz, and also rock & roll. (It's fascinating how many of the seminal '50s rock classics were improvised, or at least arose very suddenly, jumping to attention in the middle of recording sessions originally devoted to something else -- Little Richard's "Tutti Frutti," Elvis's "That's All Right," Chuck Berry's "Maybelline." Even the Penguins' "Earth Angel," not revolutionary, however wonderful it might be as a doowop song was in one way a surprise, because the version released on record was originally meant just as a demo. It took a smart record guy to realize that it was perfect as it stood.)

    This is the crucial question, one that, if we'd answer it, would help us understand why we got where we are today.

    A couple of caveats, by the way. Justin, when you say that movies and literature just somehow can't resist telling stories, I'm not sure what that tells me. Isn't this the very question we're asking -- why some kinds of music became so strongly formalist, when other arts didn't? I'm not sure it helps to say that the other arts, gosh darn it, just can't help relating to the outside world. Besides, you might underestimate just how hermetic filmmakers like Antonioni and Godard seemed in their time. L'avventura was memorably derided, when it was first released, by the Times's movie critic of the time, Bosley Crowther. He couldn't see much sense or coherence in it at all. (Then, when the film world proclaimed L'avventura a masterpiece -- I remember one list of great films that ranked it second, right after Citizen Kane -- Crowther lost his nerve and, as I seem to remember, never trusted his judgment of the avant-garde again. I hope I remember this right! It happened a long time ago, but I remember making fun of Crowther's turnaround with my best friend in high school.)

    And as for Philip Glass's music not being about anything -- well, I'm not sure how the real stuff of music is ever really about anything. But that doesn't stop it from making connections with the outside world, and Philip's music made those connections bigtime when it first appeared. Many people remarked, for instance, on what seemed then like the obvious connection between minimalism and rock. Thus it didn't seem surprising that Glass's music got popular; it seemed to echo in the zeitgeist, if that's not a badly mixed metaphor. Plus it resonated with minimal art, which was then ('70s, early '80s) a central trend.

    But in a much more basic way, something about Philip's music seemed to pick up something in the air. Many people sensed that. John Rockwell described how that felt, and did it really memorably, in his book All American Music. I myself couldn't reread that chapter, or remember living through the things it describes, and say that Philip's music is only about itself. It sure didn't seem so then.

Friday, July 30
    READER: A Still More Disturbing Question
    By Brian Newhouse
    posted @ 07/30/2004 7:28 pm

    "No composer, at least anytime recently, has entered the public consciousness with anything like the breadth of Ms. Morrison." For that matter, how many pop musicians have entered the public consciousness with anything like the breadth of Ms. Morrison? Worse yet... read more

    Queries for John Rockwell
    By Kyle Gann
    posted @ 07/30/2004 4:18 pm
    I worry sometimes that the composers Kyle champions are those left over from the 70's who haven't "made it," making it being not topping the charts but winning the respect of fellow composers and fellow artists and enough critics to earn a place in the broader conversation. - Rockwell

    But why would you assume that, John? Wouldn't it be worth finding out? I'm talking mostly about people who graduated college between '75 and '83, so calling them "left over from the '70s" is a little harsh. Might'nt one have said the same thing about Morton Feldman in 1974, when he was the same age I am now, and when he hadn't yet written any of his really great music except Rothko Chapel? Or Conlon Nancarrow in 1960, aged 48, when he had done nothing but write 30 player piano studies of whose existence the world was completely unaware? Or Robert Ashley in 1978, just starting work on Perfect Lives? What's the cutoff age?

    Jotting IV: Grab bag
    By Charles Ward
    posted @ 07/30/2004 3:55 pm

    Before I find all my ideas appearing in other posts, here are some:
    * The performer skilled in multiple media (already partially raised). String players who are facile in going between period and modern instruments. Singers who move from classical to other styles (the Renee Flemings who don't get trapped in the clutches of the music industry -- oh for the days she would show up at an interview looking less than perfect). At Rice University a handful of professors have acquired a group of restored 19th-century pianos and are using the full range, including a pristine 1825 Graf and a 1890 Bluthner, for performance and teaching.
    * Musically illiterate but gifted performers. In a non-snooty moment, I wrote a story last year on the music program at Lakewood Church, a non-denominational charismatic Houston congregation that is the largest meg-church in the country (no, I'm not indulging in old stereotypes about Texas). The music is part of the reason. The lead female worship could be a star in the secular world and on a couple of tracks on their CDs, the choir sings with a precision I never hear from the Houston Symphony Chorus. But most of the singers, including the leader, can't read music.
    * ``Creative destruction,'' the phrase popular in the business worlds that came from from ``Capitalism, Socialism and Democracy'' by the  Austrian economist Joseph Schumpeter. Competition in the future will be based not on price but on ``the new commodity, the new technology, the new source of supply, the new type of organization ... -- competition which commands a decisive cost or quality advantage.''
    * Outsourcing (already alluded to by Greg). With his Naxos label, Klaus Heymann totally upset the economics and aesthetics of the classical recording industry. He outsourced: Hiring unknown performers and obscure East European orchestras to build cities. Cities have outsourced work to conductors and soloists for ever. Now, as Greg suggested, the time is coming when even major cities likes San Antonio may outsource their performing arts (and what an issue that will pose in contract negotiations!)
    * The need to communicate with audiences -- the ``Little Women'' syndrome. After seeing the audience reception of Daniel Catan's "Florencia en el Amazonas" and the success of Adamo's "Little Women," Houston Grand Opera general director David Gockley made a conscious decision to seek out scores he thinks will have a chance to get played again. No one "A Quiet Place" or "New Year."
    * Could Gockley's decision represent the faint stirrings of a reaction to the dominance of music that people don't like to listen to?
    * Is the stasis we're now seeing in classical music a reflection of the deadlocked political system?
    * The tyranny of fixed-pitch instruments. Before an amalgamation of western and eastern 'classical' musics can happen, our system of temperament is going to have to give.
    * On the other hand, maybe Riley's In C with was Ur-idea of all time.
    * Could the current trans-national political turmoil centered on conflicts between Muslims and other groups prompt the next big idea - the reconciliation of seemingly conflicting ideas, not just accommodation. I'm especially intrigued by Europe, where Muslims have become part of the society. Kaija Saariaho's L'amour de loin certainly pointed in that direction.
    * The booming Hispanic population (alluded to already). Within a half dozen years, the population of Houston, which, many people don't know, is the fourth largest city in the United States (but the 10th largest metropolitan area), will have an absolute majority of residents with Hispanic background.

    Performance ideas
    By Greg Sandow
    posted @ 07/30/2004 2:39 pm

    I love what Anne wrote, following my thought on new ideas about performance:

    Take the whole early-music movement, arguably the biggest idea of the last 30 years (and one that, I believe, has affected how nearly every orchestra plays today).

    And take stage direction in opera…Some of it is atrocious; some of it is wonderful; but it’s the most consistently creative element in today’s rather moribund opera world, has had a pervasive effect, and plays a far larger role in making opera a contemporary art form than most of the new operas that are written (as I said in an earlier post).

    And I'd add a couple of other things. First, a real-life example of creative freedom in performance -- David Daniels singing Les nuits d'été. (Thanks, Anne, for telling me about that.)

    Plus what Anne noted in her Times piece this morning about Mostly Mozart: programming that instead of treating music historically, instead tries to find links between things that are on the surface very different.

    Other big ideas around right now are about classical music's survival, something we haven't touched on yet here (unless I missed something, which wouldn't surprise me). I've said in my ArtsJournal blog that I'm now hearing, in private, a level of pessimism about classical music's future that I've never encountered before, from people involved with major orchestras (some of them -- the people, not the orchestras -- with impeccably conservative pedigrees). So one new idea might go like this: If we don't make drastic changes, classical music is doomed.

    Of course, that's not so much an idea as a call for ideas, and the one place I'd say with some confidence that things are going is toward the community. Orchestras are growing very interested in the cities around them, and the role in those cities they play. What will that mean for music itself? I wouldn't jump to any conclusions, or start wailing that music's going to be dumbed down. It could just as well grow smarter, as orchestras find ways to connect their musical ideals with an audience, especially one made up of the smart cultured people 50 and under (to give an approximate age) who right now don't give a spit about classical music. To some of these people, the classical mainstream sounds middlebrow, and far too much like movie music. They need smarter classical concerts,  not dumber ones.

    Unfair on my Part
    By Kyle Gann
    posted @ 07/30/2004 2:33 pm
    To Wynne: I apologize for including you in that roundup, but I needed your quote to react against the fact that the critics keep claiming that there are no Big Ideas today, when I keep claiming, on behalf of composers, that there are. For rhetorical purposes I ended up implying that you were bashing the composers too; I should have found a more graceful way to handle that.

    Posting II. Composer bashing, female critics, form and content
    By Wynne Delacoma
    posted @ 07/30/2004 1:57 pm
    Dear heaven! Take a day off from reading the blog and spend an hour or two or three catching up. I haven't entirely caught up, but I can't resist jumping back into this lively discussion. Kyle: If I understand you correctly, you think I'm among those blaming composers for the current lack of a Big Idea. ABSOLUTELY NOT. I had hoped my initial posting made it clear that I question the enitre idea that Big Ideas are necessary or always efficacious. To my mind, Big Ideas are as rare as golden ages, precious and invigorating in part because of their rarity. Opera history has been filled with gifted singers but few golden ages. Big Ideas are the result of a happy alignment of all kinds of forces, from societal trends to artistic talent. Composers have a difficult enough task writing their own music. I would never ask them to take responsibility for coming up with the next Big Idea as well. Re the gender question: I grew up reading the lyrical but hard-hitting prose of Claudia Cassidy, for decades Chicago's most powerful theater and classical music critic. Opera came to Chicago in the mid-1950s courtesy of Carol Fox, tough-minded founder of Lyric Opera of Chicago. It never occurred to me that classical music or music criticism was a man's game. Luckily, by the time I discovered my lowly minority status, I was already on my way. Sometimes ignorance is bliss. I'd like to raise a question you all might be interested in discussing. How much of the unwelcome distinctions we've been noting between high culture and low, pop music and classical are the result of the way classical music is presented? Would boundaries be more easily breached if our orchestras weren't locked into a rigid system of subscription concerts? How does the fact that orchestras have to earn and fund-raise millions of dollars to meet their budgets influence the music they present and how they present it? Is the form of the standard symphony orchestra inhibiting its openness to new ideas? Any thoughts?

    What's success?
    By Scott Cantrell
    posted @ 07/30/2004 1:04 pm

    Reader Gary Panetta asks: Where's music's Toni Morrison?

    No composer, at least anytime recently, has entered the public consciousness with anything like the breadth of Ms. Morrison. That's a function of the lower profile of "serious" music in general. Everyone gets taught at least some literature in school, but rarely music. Reading--if only directions for connecting the DVD player--is part of daily life. Music is an elective, and beyond singing the simplest tune it can seem a hopelessly arcane one.

    Decades ago, Ned Rorem pointed out that well-educated people who could discuss the latest authors, artists and filmmakers often ventured no further than Peter, Paul and Mary when it came to music. Most Americans can read English, but very few can read music. I'm not sure "art" music--whatever we want to call it--is as near death as some suggest, but it's definitely a minority pursuit, right down there with jazz.

    There was a time when Benjamin Britten was widely known in England and Shostakovich in the Soviet Union. I wonder if America has ever had so high-profile a composer. Even the remarkably versatile and outgoing Copland. Bernstein was famous for his conducting and TV programs.

    John raises the issue of which composers "make it" and which don't. Has anyone figured out a formula for this? I think I know why we value Beethoven more than Hummel, but library shelves may well groan beneath yards and yards of unjustly forgotten music.

    I'm a great devote of the English composer Herbert Howells--ever heard of him? Wrote elegant music, as exquisitely orchestrated as Ravel, deeply emotional at times. You can hear a number of his works on CD, but even in England his music rarely appears in the concert hall.

    Today? Well, John Adams certainly seems to be successful, but how many well-educated people actually know his name or his music? Jake Heggie and Mark Adamo must be chortling all the way to the bank with their unashamedly populist operas. Is that "success?" Rouse, Torke, Saariaho, Andriessen, Part, Hersch, Ades all probably pay their bills by composing. Lowell Liebermann says he has a six-figure income from composing. Is that success?

    No way do we know what composers history will judge the major figures of our age. And who's to say history will be right? 

    arrgh, or however you spell it
    By John Rockwell
    posted @ 07/30/2004 12:16 pm

    Twice I've crafted incredibly thoughtful postings, hit "publish" and seen them disappear. I also can't read the continuations of the readers' letters. So much for my hailing technology as one of the next big ideas.

    What I had written was a kind of response to Kyle, bascially lamenting how high/low had taken over this conversation and stripped away the veneer of politeness to reveal all the old prejudices and resentments. I worry sometimes that the composers Kyle champions are those left over from the 70's who haven't "made it," making it being not topping the charts but winning the respect of fellow composers and fellow artists and enough critics to earn a place in the broader conversation. The point about Partch is well taken, but eventually he did make it, and a lot of Kyle's over-50's have not, and probably will not. For that, I think, it's tired to blame the pop-music business or misguided critics or a cruel and uncaring world.

    But this blog is supposed to be about big ideas, not big music, or even pretty darn good music. So back to the beginning: for me, present-day big ideas include high/low, Western/non-Western and technology in all its forms. Ideas don't produce music; they reflect it. But there are enough ideas, and enough good composers out there, to make me optimistic.

    Loved Alex's all-purpose polemical repostes.

    Clarifcation, Departure
    By Alex Ross
    posted @ 07/30/2004 11:49 am
    To reader John Shaw: nowhere in my initially huffy and eventually tone-down response to Kyle was there anything even approaching the beginning of an initial cogitation toward the glimmering of a notion that "pop is better than new classical." Possibly the confusion lies in this sentence: "What has NOT been said is that pop musicians have produced most of the significant music." To be absolutely clear: the import of this sentence is that no one on this blog except perhaps Robert Fink is saying that "pop is better." I myself have never thought and never said any such thing. I'm not in the business of ranking different genres of music — it's untrue to my experience and unhelpful to my readers.

    Fighting Words with Words
    By Kyle Gann
    posted @ 07/30/2004 11:18 am
    Ross: Do we need this kind of classification anymore -- "postclassical," "postminimalist," "totalist"?

    We needed it in the '90s for a very practical reason, because we were sick and tired of critics calling us minimalists (which we weren't), and it was holding back public perception of our music. (It worked beautifully, by the way - none of us was ever called a minimalist again.) And I sort of thought discussing such movements was the point of this blog. Sorry.

    READER:Un-Self-Consciousness In Seattle
    By Gavin Borchert
    posted @ 07/30/2004 10:51 am

    A couple contributors have mentioned they'd be curious to hear from composers themselves. At the risk of making this blog a little Seattle-centric, let me try to describe what's going on in the compositional scene here with regard to the "Big Idea" idea... read more

    The New New Thing
    By Alex Ross
    posted @ 07/30/2004 9:42 am
    An interesting thing has happened: Kyle Gann has accused me and others of "composer bashing" because we have suggested that pop musicians rather than composers have been the source of many or most "big ideas" after minimalism. What has NOT been said is that pop musicians have produced most of the significant music. Big ideas are not the same as major works. I, for one, think it's wonderful that composers are no longer so much in the business of manufacturing big ideas. It's odd that Kyle should understand this as an insult. I wonder whether he feels a certain hidden nostalgia for that modernist heyday when composers unveiled their grand ideas under the banner of grand nomenclature. Do we need this kind of classification anymore -- "postclassical," "postminimalist," "totalist"? Do we need to set up a club and say who's in and who's out? Isn't that perpetuating the old Second Viennese School / Darmstadt syndrome?

    Justin's point about music of non-European traditions is incredibly important. I've been noticing how few Europeans are cropping these days on my own ever-revolving personal lists of significant living composers. I wrote up a "top 10 works of the last 10 years" for BBC Music Magazine a couple of years ago, and I was amazed to find not a single German, Italian, or French name on my list. Instead, three Americans (Reich, Adams, Carter), two Englishmen (Knussen, Adès), an Argentinian (Golijov), two Finns (Lindberg, Saariaho), a Transylvanian (Ligeti), and a rock band (Radiohead). Still pretty Anglo-American, I know, but very different from what I might have come up with 10 years ago. I wouldn't be surprised to find my list a decade from now filled with South American, African, and Asian names. What composers/works would the rest of you name as the most striking of the last few years? Why do they stand out?

    Reply to Anne: I'll agree that modern opera production can have a galvanic effect. Schlingensief's Parsifal was not, to my taste, a case in point. Director-opera obviously serves as a substitute for new opera; directors are essentially recomposing operas and presenting them as world premieres. I'll agree, tentatively, that the genre "plays a far larger role in making opera a contemporary art form than most of the new operas that are written." But I think it's a really tragic state of affairs, one that opera houses should try to reverse by seeking out bold new opera at every opportunity. Alas, they have so little incentive to do so.

    I'll be out of town til Monday, so here are all-purpose rejoinders to any further internecine assaults: Wrong! Absolutely not! Are you kidding me? You sound like Adorno! Six of one, half dozen of the other! Busoni is rolling in his grave! etc.

    What's the Big Idea?
    By Anne Midgette
    posted @ 07/30/2004 8:32 am

    Amid the problems of definition swirling around here, we all seem to be assuming that the big ideas we’re talking about are necessarily contained in new musical works. This is kind of ironic because (as this discussion demonstrates) the field of classical music doesn’t quite know how to deal with music that’s being written today. We can’t even agree on how to define it.

    After following this debate, and thinking about something Greg said in an earlier posting about ideas in performance, it has struck me that the big ideas in the classical music field that stir up controversy, provoke the audience, and get discussed are about the performance of old music rather than the directions of new music. Take the whole early-music movement, arguably the biggest idea of the last 30 years (and one that, I believe, has affected how nearly every orchestra plays today).

    And take stage direction in opera (Alex, this one’s for you, since I intimate from your earlier post that you’re going to do some Schlingensief-bashing in the near future). Some of it is atrocious; some of it is wonderful; but it’s the most consistently creative element in today’s rather moribund opera world, has had a pervasive effect, and plays a far larger role in making opera a contemporary art form than most of the new operas that are written (as I said in an earlier post).

    To Kyle, and Richard Einhorn
    By Justin Davidson
    posted @ 07/30/2004 7:47 am

    I guess I don't read those excerpts the way you do. Alex has stated his preference for one set of composers over another, but not, I think, dissed the whole lot. Greg made a reasoned generalization, which is by definition going to leave out part of the picture. Overlooking Partch is not the same as telling all composers to shove it. Wynne's statement is about the topic of this discussion, not a wholesale attack on composers.

    Richard, thanks for that clarification. I'm with you now, though it seems to me that discussing the relationship between money and music is not that far from discussing chronological development, since examining Mozart's finances is another way of putting his music in historical context.

    It would be great to hear from more composers, by the way.  

    READER: Money Vs. "Music That Matters"
    By Richar Einhorn
    posted @ 07/30/2004 7:47 am
    Justin is right that Hip Hop and Steve Reich's "City Life" do not equal a parody mass (although maybe the Low Symphony could be somewhere close to one). But I disagree that a flattened history is not terribly useful for critics... read more

    READER: Flogging For Novelty?
    By Joanne Forman
    posted @ 07/30/2004 7:45 am
    "To thine own self be true" may be a thundering cliche, but cliches are true. When I came in to composing, back in the stone age, you HAD HAD HAD to do serial (or twelve-tone--what a misnomer!) music... read more

    Composer Bashing
    By Kyle Gann
    posted @ 07/30/2004 7:40 am
    ...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. - Ross

    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? - Sandow [ouch! take that, Harry Partch, who was the Kerouac of music]

    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. - Rockwell

    If I were a composer, I'd want to see what I could learn from each of these discoveries. I'd be particularly interested in how relatively simple harmonic designs go hand in hand with dizzying textural complexity. Pop music is full of fresh ideas about tonality. In this area, classical composers are lagging behind. - Ross [ALL classical composers? ALL? You've heard every one?]

    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. - Delacoma

    [And I recall a comment about how pop music is more technologically sophisticated than new classical music, but to the relief of several thousand electronic composers, it seems to have been wisely withdrawn.]

    It’s always easy to blame the composers, because, in any given generation, 90 percent of them are not going to write music that deserves to be remembered forever - as true in Mozart’s generation as today. Any well-founded generalization about composers will inevitably be to the disadvantage of the breed. “Of course there are exceptions...” but in art, it’s only the exceptions who count. Nevertheless, one of my points is that even the composers who never join anyone’s pantheon may significantly contribute to the development of a musical language. It takes a whole village to raise an -ism.

    related reader post

    READER: Jazz - MIA?
    By George Hunka
    posted @ 07/30/2004 7:25 am
    One of the words I see conspicuously absent from the conversation on CC over the last few days is "jazz." I'm assuming this is so because nobody wants to open that particular can of worms... read more

    Who's saying Give Up?
    By Justin Davidson
    posted @ 07/30/2004 7:02 am
    Kyle, thanks for that illuminating account. I'm going to make a point of brushing up on some of the music you've mentioned. But where do you get the idea that critics want composers to conform? To what? It seems to me that despite our arguments and predilections, one thing we share is curiosity.

    Inside a Big Idea

    By Kyle Gann
    posted @ 07/30/2004 6:54 am
    Writing as a composer for a moment, and in response to some of the comments, I’d like to talk for a moment about how the Big Idea looks from the artist’s side.

    Listening to minimalist music in the ‘70s, it dawned on me that Steve Reich’s polyrhythms in Drumming and the punchy, ametrical rhythmic patterns of Phil Glass’s Music in Fifths offered a context in which one could create a new performance practice for the tempo clashes I loved in the musics of Ives, Cowell, and Nancarrow. I started exploring this territory in 1983 in a piece called Mountain Spirit. Over the next ten years, I learned that a lot of other composers born in the ‘50s had had the same idea at around the same time: Rhys Chatham, Glenn Branca, Mikel Rouse, Michael Gordon, Ben Neill, John Luther Adams, David First, Lois Vierk, Art Jarvinen, Evan Ziporyn, Diana Meckley, Eve Beglarian, Larry Polansky, and to some extent Nick Didkovsky. Other composers developed related ideas in electronic media: Joshua Fried, Ron Kuivila, Carl Stone. Playing with tempo clashes of 4 against 5, 8 against 9, 13 against 29, and so on, this music was not at all minimalist, but in a way a complete subversion of minimalism. By 1991, I had written an article about the remarkably similar techniques used by these composers, unbeknownst to each other, and afterward the Big Idea we were all working on acquired a controversial name: totalism. We didn’t premeditatedly concoct this Big Idea: it appeared on the horizon of the collective unconscious and drew us all in.

    There has been, in this conversation, some criticism of composers writing music for music’s sake, writing music that deals in merely technical issues instead of meaningful social ones. But in the early development of a Big Idea, this emphasis on technique is entirely necessary. You can’t suddenly, by sheer dint of will, write a political opera in a style only five years old. I’ve been heavily influenced by some of my contemporaries, especially Mikel Rouse, Bill Duckworth, and more recently Beth Anderson; and by that facile, threadbare word “influence,” I mean I stole from them both techniques and what I can only call a way of listening. I also heard things that I didn’t think worked, and attempted to correct other people’s failures in my own music. We all listened to each other, stole from each other, veered away from each other’s miscalculations. This is how a new style develops, and the value of a Big Idea that attracts a lot of composers is that a new musical language grows up that is not merely a product of one creative mind, but a collective contribution of many composers. (After all, to offer another of our historical parallels: the classical symphony began in the 1720s, but not until Haydn and Mozart started stealing from each other around 1780 did the style coalesce into something lasting. Mozart and Haydn wrote a hell of a lot of string quartets and piano concerti, heard for many years only by small groups of cognoscenti, before they were finally accomplished enough to write Don Giovanni and The Creation.)

    In any musical language, some composers will eventually transcend the merely technical aspects, and some won’t. (Haydn and Mozart transcended, Wagenseil and Wanhal didn’t, but that doesn’t mean the latter pair’s contributions weren’t helpful; Wagenseil was Haydn’s first model.) In the case of totalism, most of us have attempted to write larger works of some social significance. Branca wrote symphonies for electric guitars which have an immense underground following. Mikel wrote a technologically sophisticated opera, Dennis Cleveland, based on a talk show format, which has been performed at Lincoln Center, around Australia, and elsewhere. Ben wrote a big multimedia piece about AIDS, ITSOFOMO, and has since become a rather successful crossover artist in the ambient field, even applying his style to commercial work. Gordon and Adams have had considerable success on the orchestra circuit and with recordings on Nonesuch and New World. I wrote a political music theater work about racism, Custer and Sitting Bull, which I’ve performed more than 25 times on three continents. With the single exception of myself, all of these composers had some background in pop or rock music, and many incorporated aspects of that music into what they were doing; if you want tempos to clash, a powerful backbeat is a good starting point. Some of these people wouldn’t call their music “classical” with a gun to their head.

    Clearly no one in this forum thinks this is a Big Idea except me, but the jury’s going to be out for many years yet, and the record I’ve painted above is hardly that of a tree falling in the forest with no one hearing it. Except for Gordon and Adams once in a blue moon, classical critics are not going to run into any of this repertoire at their local Orchestra Hall, but that’s neither our fault nor our concern. In strictest terms, totalism was a ‘90s phenomenon, and many of us have moved away from this particular Big Idea in its purest form. The musical language has not entirely coalesced yet, but it wouldn’t have gotten anywhere at all without a lot of energetic cross-breeding.

    Yet to read many of the recommendations from critics here, the message I see being sent to these composers is: GIVE UP. Imagine if this forum had appeared in the 1950s, and been read by Harry Partch while he was still struggling to create his microtonal orchestra in the face of massive institutional indifference. Partch would have read that he was a tree falling in the forest unheard, his recordings collected only by a handful. “Stop wasting your time on pure-music pieces like Castor and Pollux that just develop your new scale," he'd be told. "Imitate the pop musicians, Harry, that’s where the energy is. Quit bucking convention. CONFORM.” Had Harry listened, he would never have written Delusion of the Fury, never have become famous in the 1960s, never have become an incredible inspiration to subsequent generations of musicians. He did hear such messages, and ignored them. If this is truly the message that classical critics want to send to today’s composers: no composer worth his salt is going to pay the slightest attention to your recommendations, thank god.

    Some things are new, actually.
    By Justin Davidson
    posted @ 07/30/2004 5:56 am

    I'm struck by the way most of us have been treating history very elastically. Instinctively, we look to the past to explain the present and predict the future, and because, as Richard Einhorn points out, we have such a great historical span at our fingertips, we take a very long view. That's potentially as misleading as having no sense of history at all. Einhorn sees a history of music "flattened" by the instant availability of everything, which may be the case for composers but is not terribly useful for critics. At the same time, focusing too much on precedent makes it difficult to see what is really new.

    To say, as Charles Ward does, that sampling was tried centuries ago, is a little like saying that an automobile is just a glorified covered wagon. Sampling technology has given composers a radical new tool for the manipulation of sound, different in kind from borrowing or allusion. Hip-hop and Steve Reich's "City Life" are not equivalent to a Renaissance parody mass. Precedent is not equivalence.

    Scott is right: Popular music is not new, but "pop music" with a global reach is. John is right, too: There is a fundamental difference between Debussy's exotic dip into gamelan, or Stravinsky's into ragtime, or Mozart's into "Turkish" music (really, now!) and the cultural blender in which virtually every composer lives today.

    Those two things - global pop and the availabilty of music from so many times and so many places - are connected, and they come as close to a big idea as I think we're going to get. You can decry the corporate monopoly of pop music (which I gather is fading in any case), but  the same channels that bring Britney to Bangladesh also bring banghra to Queens.

    It's interesting, too, how parochial most of this conversation has been. Aside from Bjork, virtually every musician we've named has been on the Anglo-American axis (and Bjork sings in English and lives with the artist Matthew Barney). but Surely one of the major incubators of popular music in the last 40 years has been Brazil? And we can't really get a complete picture of classical contemporary music without knowing a little about, say the Azerbaijani composer Franghiz Ali-Zadeh? (Okay, she moved from Baku to Berlin a few years ago.) There is no longer any one musical center - or even three -  where everything of interest originates.

    READER: Time is not of the Essence
    By Tom Myron
    posted @ 07/30/2004 12:13 am
    Here's my big idea. The belief that it is somehow significant that we have all the music of the past 500-plus years available to us at the swipe of a credit card is a red herring responsible for a massive fit of cultural self-consciousness... read more

Thursday, July 29
    By Alex Ross
    posted @ 07/29/2004 10:42 pm
    "Will critics ever shed the need to be tragically hip?" asks Charles Ward. Not before other critics shed the need to be tragically snooty. I don't know what Kitchen saxophonist was judged to be "fundamentally barely literate musically" back in 1979, and perhaps she fit that description perfectly, but Björk makes for a very poor contemporary counterpart. She attended the Tónmenntaskóli music school in Reykjavik from the age of five to the age of fifteen, by the end of which time she was playing atonal Icelandic concertos on the flute and listening avidly to Messiaen, Stockhausen, and Cage. She stopped practicing classical music because she found it to be a narrow, repressive world. Punk and dance music gave her more to think about. We've lost countless young brilliant minds to the "other side" because of our pedantry and hauteur, fresh examples of which are all too easily found.

    I fear I've been wandering too far off topic, so I'll be mute about the pop stuff from now on. There is no such thing as "popular music" anyway, if you take it to mean whatever is not classical music. What sound comes to mind when the term is used? Britney Spears? Brad Mehldau? Missy Elliott? Youssou N'Dour? These people have less in common with each other than do, say, Wuorinen and Golijov. Fragmentation is even more widespread in pop than in classical.

    related reader comment

    Jotting III: When John Rockwell took a coalition of the willing to a downtown club, or, will critics ever shed the need to be tragically hip.
    By Charles Ward
    posted @ 07/29/2004 9:27 pm
    Often when I hear the latest rapper to round the block, I remember an experience at the New Music American Festival in New York in 1979. The downtown scene had reached a boiling point. The Music Critics Association held a long seminar at the Kitchen for curious members and John was their guide. One evening some followed him downtown to a club. In the basement, alone in a small room, was a saxophonist sitting on a chair. She had a rhythm machine on the floor pounding out a beat and she was wailing away to it. Today the chanter is often less coherent and the rhythmic accompaniment even blunter, but ptherwise there's been little fundmental progress. Both were/are fundamentally barely literate musically.

    At the MCA seminar, the same issues were flogged as on this blog – from the embarrassment at the word classical, to pop music as the future of the world. Arty pop groups got gushes. Only the names have changed. Now it’s Bjork instead of Blondie.

    Of course popular music has affected classical music, as Scott noted. Who knows. Maybe Leonin and Perotin got the inspiration for their revolutionary treatment of chant from rowdy singing at a watering hole in the shadow of Paris’ 12th-century cathedral. Certainly some important ideas and performers came out of that downtown

    But fundamentally the aesthetics are totally different. I’m reminded of that every time I go to a concert of 16th-century secular instrumental music. Put one of those short pieces against a current pop song and, when all the sonic and stylistic differences are stripped out, the two aren’t that different. Put the same current pop song up against a late-19th century symphony and the differences are immense – because of the fundamentally different aesthetic about the nature of composition, the handling of materials and the purpose of the work. The reason music students are taught harmony, counterpoint, orchestration, etc. is not just to amuse or entertain them or exercise power over them but to train them in the fundamentals of the craft of classical music.

    As to Scott’s question about the globalization of pop music, it’s a function of the technological changes I referred to in my first post. A lot of pop music remains what used to be called an oral tradition. Once an efficient and effective way of capturing it and transmitting it was invented – digital recording, CDs, satellite transmission, etc (as well as piracy and the movement to more democratic governments world-wide) – it was easy for well-practiced marketing people to turn performers and their music into a global phenomenon.

    A question to explore could be what facets of pop music classical composers might use. Sampling’s been tried (a few centuries ago). Perhaps working off the kind of complexity that 24-track recording allows?

    READER: Is Hip-Hop The Big Idea?
    By Tim Rutherford-Johnson
    posted @ 07/29/2004 7:07 pm
    I'm glad that Alex Ross has brought up hip hop - and surprised that it wasn't mentioned before. If we are to look for a 'Big Idea' in current music - a project that I am ambivalent about - then surely the worldwide dominance of hip hop must be it?... read more

    Pop music precedent
    By Scott Cantrell
    posted @ 07/29/2004 3:09 pm

    Anne picked up on my question: Is their any historical precedent for what we now call pop music? In the sense of a huge international-conglomerate business, with product marketed on an enormous scale, airing on radio stations from Omaha to Vladivostok, I think not. I'm not saying that's bad or good--I don't even know what it means--but it does seem to me something wholly unprecedented.

    READER: Not One Line In The Sand
    By Molly Sheridan
    posted @ 07/29/2004 3:02 pm
    I have to admit that even though I spend my days writing about the hard to classify "new classical music," I was initially disturbed by the "Classical Music Critics on the Future of Music" premise. At first I thought it was unintentional... read more

    To: AC Douglas
    By Alex Ross
    posted @ 07/29/2004 3:01 pm
    Reader AC Douglas, publisher of the unapologetically pro-elitist Sounds and Fury blog, writes that the likes of Sonic Youth and Aphex Twin are "'classical' music produced by non-'classical' composers, self-identified, and performed in and through non-'classical' venues. You simply confuse the issue by referring to such music as 'pop' music." Indeed, the word "pop" is bizarre and ironic when applied to a proudly difficult band like Sonic Youth, not to mention a politically radical group like Public Enemy. But it's not classical music, either — nowhere close. It's incredibly interesting because it's neither here nor there. By the way, ACD, I believe you are going to enjoy my review of the Schlingensief Parsifal.

    A few responses to other postings
    By Anne Midgette
    posted @ 07/29/2004 2:57 pm

    John: I disagree with your equation of fragmentation and despair. What about Stravinsky, Picasso, Joyce, or the countless other artists who have moved productively from one style to another, or used many styles in a single work? For many, this so-called fragmentation (shall we call it polystilism, to give it a more positive spin?) is extremely fertile. Others, of course, may find there aren’t enough limits or guidelines.

    The whole debate about classical and pop music, high and low, seems to have become classical music’s sour-grapes way of justifying to itself that it is no longer popular. But these are not exactly new ideas (to respond to Scott’s question about historical parallels). Think of Stendahl describing Italian music in his Life of Rossini. It was definitely the pop music of its day, viewed as cheap trash (or “macaroni”) by the highbrows.

    Back to fragmentation for a minute
    By Anne Midgette
    posted @ 07/29/2004 2:27 pm

    I see I'm responding to posts that are already a few hours old. But I wanted to second Scott and Justin on the fragmentation issue, while noting that this is by no means confined to classical music. The visual arts, dance, and poetry, at the very least, have also been reflecting the lack of a unified cultural outlook in recent decades.

    That fragmentation, indeed, is a part of the creative process today. Think Picasso, think Stravinsky; it's now generally understood that one artist can wear a number of different stylistic masks, deal with a number of different big ideas, in the course of his lifetime.

    More recently, there are examples of artists who had to work through and get past the requisite "big ideas" of their time in order to find their own. I think of David Del Tredici, who moved through and then cast off academic atonality and now works in a lush neo-Romantic Expressionism. (An aside: serialism in the 60s and 70s seems to me to have been de facto less a Big Idea than a straitjacket in which to restrain young composers.) Not dissimilar is Robert Irwin, the visual artist, who started as an Abstract Expressionist and moved through Minimalism to emerge with a kind of personal baroque style. The journey of both of these artists involved casting off big ideas, rather than remaining bound by them.

    One notable difference is that Irwin is embraced as a grand old man in his field, in part because visual arts institutions are far more committed to new ideas than are classical music institutions. If opera houses were run like museums, they would be scrambling to present Dum Dee Tweedle, Einstein on the Beach, The Ghosts of Versailles, Three Tales, and other truly interesting (love ’em or hate ’em) new operas. Instead, we get the musical equivalent of salon painting: The Great Gatsby, Little Women, Dead Man Walking. (Again, love ’em or hate ’em; I’m not saying they’re bad, but they aren’t exactly contemporary art in the sense that the former pieces are.)

    READER: Waiting For Godot
    By Colin Eatock
    posted @ 07/29/2004 1:48 pm
    I don’t know what’s going to happen next – and judging by this blog, most music critics don’t know either. But here’s what I’d like to see happen... read more

    READER: No More Historical Progress
    By Richard Einhorn
    posted @ 07/29/2004 1:44 pm
    Most of the writers here assume, with a greater or lesser sense of defensiveness, that distinctions between high and low art are pretty meaningless when you're dealing with great artists (eg, Hugo Wolf and Kate Bush). You'll get no argument about that from me, but... read more

    the magpie
    By John Rockwell
    posted @ 07/29/2004 1:10 pm

    Picking my way through the latest entries, as we magpies are wont to, some comments:

    Robert Fink is a smart fella (I know this in part because I heard him at this spring's Seattle EMP rock & roll symposium). I agree with most everything in his entry, except the dissing of Rossini. P.S.: Does his "crashing the party" mean that anyone can join in now, not ghettoized into "reader comments"? Or just the crashers that Doug likes?!

    I'm not sure fragmentation and disunity are a very stirring big idea, or rallying point, or stylistic signature. Sounds more like despair to me. Big ideas, as I said before, are not enunciated and then slavishly followed by composers. They represent spontaneous excitement generating around shared ideas (e.g., minimalism), sometimes (especially in France) self-consciously articulated in a manifesto (e.g., Boulez).

    I think the comparing of muscians' journeys to exotic climes in the 17th and 18th centuries with today's musical multi-culturalism is dead wrong. There is a big, not a little, difference between appropriating sounds and ideas into a tradition that you know without thinking is superior and genuine amalgams of cultures (e.g. Glass's variant on ragas in his early minimalism). Not to speak of non-Western composers, trained in Western classical practice or not, amalgamating away with OUR music. I mean, the Beijing conservatory that spawned all the Chinese composers now active in the U.S. is one source, but so are Bill Laswell's collaborations with world musicians from hither and yon.

    Not being much of a fan of Elvis Costello, I recall that I myself once equated Joni Mitchell in the 70's with Schubert, and not apologetically, then or now. Cf. her "Amelia," on the "Hejira" album.

    I'm amused by the lingering effort of some entrants to maintain a valuative distinction between lower pop and higher classical. (Not that distinctions can't profitably be made between ANY two things.) In particular, by invoking the dreary term commercialism, as in Adorno's "culture industry." Who says academic composers, struggling for tenure, desperate not to offend their teachers, jockeying for position among their peers, operate with "fewer constraints" than the popsters? 

    Beyond categories?
    By Alex Ross
    posted @ 07/29/2004 1:00 pm

    Robert Fink's post is very welcome, although he distorts my position re: composers and pop music, displaying, if I may say, the bad academic habit of reading ideologies into innocuous turns of phrase. I obviously don't think of pop music as merely a goldmine for composers. My website, www.therestisnoise.com (see "popular" division), demonstrates what some colleagues may actually see as an excessive respect for pop artists as "real" artists. I was simply saying that composers have a lot to learn from pop music, not hegemonically mandating a colonialist enslavement of the Oriental Other.

    Otherwise, I agree to a great extent with the Finkian intervention, its pop-supremacist attitudes excepted. I think we're going to see a partial collapse of the boundary between so-called classical music and neighboring spheres in the popular arena. We'll see an increasing interchange of roles: two harbingers are Steve Reich, who's become an icon of modern electronic music, and Jonny Greenwood, who's launching a career as an avant-gardish concert composer, or, more accurately, resuming the compositional career that the world fame of Radiohead interrupted. (Elvis Costello I don't see as a harbinger of anything in particular.) Then you have someone like Björk, whom I'm writing about now, and who lives in a lovely Icelandic world where all these distinctions are boring and marginal.

    All the same, classical music will remain its own beast, with its own language and discipline and lore. There won't be a total breakdown of categories. Simply, I'm hoping, an erosion of lazy old assumptions about the inborn intellectual superiority of one kind of music over another. Complex music can be very stupid; simple music can be very smart. There's pop music which is very complex and very unpopular. There's classical music which is very cheap and very cloying. Seriousness is something earned; it's not the automatic gift of a certain amount of education.

    Composers are composers, but distinctions are still worthwhile
    By Andrew Druckenbrod
    posted @ 07/29/2004 12:47 pm

    Robert -- musicologists: wordy, yes, (not too mention overly zealous in the use of quotation marks!!!) but certainly welcome to this discussion. Your comments on the term classical are particularly lucid. What a tired, misinformed term, indeed.

    Of course we should break down the walls between categories of classical and popular as high and low and look for other qualities, other “buckets,” as you say. I definitely hear all music as music first, only after do the prescribed categories ossify in my head or force their way into writing so that my views can be expressed. Likewise, I view the creators all as composers, just some writing what is referred to as pop while others write what we call classical. The idea that Elvis Costello is a considered somehow lesser and called a songwriter and Schubert held higher and referred to as a composer is strange when you consider the high level both have achieved in song. I am not equating the two, but saying that they are certainly part of the same conversation.

    Again, as I said before, why do we need to judge everything against a central trunk of someone’s concept of music? For instance, I love the epic ambient strains of the Icelandic pop group Sigur Ros, which I recently saw with a string quartet playing alongside of it. I have heard song form, lyric form, strophic form, ABA, and more turned so cleverly and beautifully on its head by pop and hip-hop songwriters/composers, not to mention their sly and poignant use of quotation and sampling. So the categorizations as they now stand stink. I wish the fragmentation that Scott quite rightly talks of carried over to the liquidation or re-casting of the labels we use. I can’t stand it when I run into some snob who tells me how bereft of quality pop is when it’s clear they don’t listen to it and visa versa.

    But still I think -- without a bogus need to defend classical music’s existence or to gain rhetorical control over it – there are differences between commercial music (limited to a smaller time frame and music) and music that has fewer constraints. There’s also worth in discerning and discussing the differences between music (classical, opera, pop or folk) with lyrics and that without them. (I am not trying to revive the whole instrumental vs. programmatic music debate, but just to say the latter is not an art form existing in a one-to-one connection with meaning and relevance in culture.) I think I would enjoy Beethoven’s Ninth in a fragmented world such as today, but it would also be fruitful to understand what he was playing off of.

    High/Low Redux
    By Justin Davidson
    posted @ 07/29/2004 12:42 pm

    Somehow we've wandered into the territory covered by an exhibit at the Museum of Modern Art some years ago: High/Low, which dealt extensively with these distinctions and grey areas. Those in-between areas are huge and fertile and I think that the bands Alex and others have named belong there. But Robert Fink's re-shuffling of categories so that deep music is on one side and fluff on the other - is going too far. 

    What separates classical from pop is not a hierarchy of taste, or even an incompatibility of musical values. But they do still belong in different categories, however porous, becuase they sustain different economies, operate on different timetables, involve different groups of people and institutions and have different markers of prestige. Look at the attention Matt Haimovitz has gotten for playing the cello in clubs like CBGBs - it's a small gesture, but a significant one.

    Classical and pop musicians also operate on completely different scales. Most of the composers we've named sell CDs by the dozens if they're really, really lucky. (In some cases, I have a feeling Kyle Gann may own the only extant copy.) Any pop band or indie rock group or rapper important enough even to get noticed has sales with a significant string of zeroes. That's a qualitative jump which suggests that the two worlds can overlap only so far.

    I'm not trying to suggest that we focus on obscure and unsaleable music for its own sake, or that obscurity is a criterion for true art. That would be pretentious and preposterous. I am saying, though, that Louis Andriessen, for example, is recognized by a system and deals with external pressures that are very different from those that apply in the case of Lou Reed, even if musically there is quite a bit of overlap between them. It's not "colonial," to use Fink's word, to note that difference.

    Alex's use of the word "goldmine" wasn't exploitative either, except in the sense that all composers exploit other composers, digging through their music for ideas. Composers listen selfishly and everybody steals. Some of the technologies that pop musicians use so prodigiously now were first developed at Columbia and other universities, after all.

    By Scott Cantrell
    posted @ 07/29/2004 12:31 pm

    There's been a fair bit of huffing and puffing here about multiculturalism, as if this were something new.

    Look at all the composers who traveled widely--at least by standards of their time--in the 17th century. Bach was about as multiculti as you could be in the 18th century, drawing on musical ideas from Italy and France as well as the scattered cultures that hadn't yet coalesced into Germany. Mozart incorporated imitation "Turkish" music.

    Multiculturalism receded in the 19th century, with the rise of nationalist movements. But this sparked a new interest among "classical" composers in folk music (Brahms, Dvorak, Mahler, Bartok, Kodaly, Vaughan Williams, Copland). Britten, Colin McPhee and Lou Harrison pioneered the incorporation of Asian influences in Western concert music. And, say what you will about the "condescending" attitude of early 20th century composers toward ragtime and jazz, those influences did make themselves felt.

    Is there, though, any historic parallel to what we now call popular music?

    By Scott Cantrell
    posted @ 07/29/2004 12:01 pm

    Lots of newer composers' names have been bandied about here. But the last composers whose new works were eagerly awaited by relatively broad audiences and widely discussed were Copland, Britten and Shostakovich. And that was 30 years ago.

    Serialism is the favorite whipping boy for the growing disconnect between composers and audiences. But I'm not convinced it was ever the force majeure we now make it out to be. In academia, maybe, but let's keep academia in perspective. New Criticism was all the rage in literary academia, but how much difference did it make to people who actually bought and read books?

    I keep coming back to the issue of fragmentation. It really got underway in the aftermath of World War II. The U.S. was absorbing all these European composers and performers of multiple stripes. Amid postwar prosperity and feeling our oats as a dominant country, the music industry was expanding geometrically. Look at all the American opera companies, great and small, founded in the 1950s. Egged on by the American Federation of Musicians, orchestras vastly expanded their concert offerings. (In Brahms' Vienna, by contrast, the Vienna Philharmonic played--what?--four concerts a season.)

    This expansion continued at least through the 1990s. Music lovers were increasingly freed to explore their narrowest interests. People who would crawl on their knees to hear the Tallis Scholars wouldn't walk across the street to hear the Berlin Philharmonic, and vice versa. If there ever was such a thing as "the classical music audience"--and I doubt there was--it has been completely fragmented into niche markets.

    If there's a single "big idea," this is it--and it's not exactly an idea: fragmentation. For better or worse, I don't see Humpty Dumpty being put back together again.

    Reader Intervention: A Musicologist Crashes The Party!
    By Robert Fink
    posted @ 07/29/2004 11:26 am

    Big (non) Idea: "Classical Music" is Dead

    Yo! Since no full-time musicological critics were invited to the party, and it's such an amazing party, I couldn't resist crashing. This discussion is at such a high level - it proves the hypothesis that in the Darwinian world of classical music journalism, where fewer and fewer critics are allotted less and less space to cover the phenomenon, only the strong survive. Kudos!

    So, much of what I might observe, as a music historian and critic, has already been said: Big Ideas were less prevalent (and less salient) in the history of Western Art Music than one might assume; the hope that another Big Idea will arrive and "rescue" our stalled history of "great" music seems kind of like nostalgic, wishful thinking; and, crucially, popular music seems to have taken over the Big Idea carrier function that we once assumed only "classical" music could serve.

    Watching pop music seep into the conversation has been fascinating. Many participants in the discussion know it well, write about it, even pioneered critical approaches that allowed some of it to mingle with the contemporary "classical" stuff (shout-out to you, Mr. Rockwell!). But maybe, for once, the ivory tower gives me freedom of speech (and employment): I'm a professional musicologist - I just study "music," and I can write about whatever kind of music I want, whether or not my training was designed to interest me in it.

    I think the Big Idea here is the collapse of the biggest Big Idea of classical music: that there is such a thing as a single "classical music," analogous to the classical literature of the Greeks and Romans; that it defines the roots of "our" musical civilization the way Homer and Sophocles once did for Western Europe; that every educated member of the society should know at least that this "classical music" exists and that it is more important than ephemeral works in the vernacular; and that any serious contemporary composer has to fit into a canonic narrative selection of "great works" that can be traced back in the classical line to our Homer and Sophocles, .

    So, I would submit for discussion the Big (Non) Idea: you cannot understand our culture's musical creativity at this moment in time if you persist in splitting the world of music up into "classical" (i.e.: art, serious, etc.) and "popular" musics. "Classical Music" (as a critical Big Idea) is dead.

    This leads to some warpage in even the most determinedly ecumenical attitudes on display in this blog, as people struggle to reconcile the way they feel about current music with the ideological need to preserve some domain as "classical" and assert rhetorical control over it.

    To read the rest of this post go HERE

    Female critics
    By Scott Cantrell
    posted @ 07/29/2004 10:28 am

    Thanks to Anne for clarifying her position at the Times. And for linking to an earlier Andante article she did on female critics, adding some names to my hastily compiled list.

    I certainly should have included Sarah Bryan Miller at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch and Leslie Valdez at the San Jose Mercury News. 

    But my list was mainly full-time staff critics at newspapers, although I think Mary Ellen Hutton in Cincinnati (whom I included) is free-lance. Aren't two of the people on Anne's list free-lance: Heidi Waleson (Wall Street Journal) and Shirley Fleming (New York Post)? And now I learn that Anne is free-lance, too--and without a contract. Detroit's Nancy Malitz left the field--to our loss--years ago. 

     Alas, my point--and Anne's--about minimal female representation in music criticism stands.

    Pop Innovation
    By Alex Ross
    posted @ 07/29/2004 10:07 am

    On the question of composition's relationship to pop, which is emerging as a thread of our discussion, I want to clarify a couple of things. 1) In response to Justin D, I certainly don't think that pop music has a "lock" on anything. Musical history tells us that nothing is forever and everything is changeable. I believe it's perfectly possible that classical music will experience a massive resurgence in popularity in the next twenty or thirty years, and that composers will once again command cultural center stage. But it will only happen if those of us in the classical realm decide to change in fundamental ways our relationship with the culture at large -- as Greg Sandow has long urged us to do. 2) In response to Andrew Druckenbrod, I'm talking about purely musical ideas within "pop" (as problematic a term as "classical"), not the lyrics, the stage shows, the lifestyle apparatus, and so on. I'm thinking of the following: i) The extreme variation on A-B-A structure in songs by Pere Ubu, Sonic Youth, and some other bands of the seventies and eighties, in which the "A" section is tonal and the "B" section is atonal or pure noise; ii) The use of samples in hip-hop tracks like Public Enemy's "Welcome to the Terrordome," in which an overwhelming, borderline-chaotic density of pre-recorded material is arranged according to precise rhythmic designs; iii) The use of advanced electronic production to create a hypnotically clean, austere sound-world, in records by Aphex Twin, Mark Bell, and other artists on the Warp and Rephlex labels; ...and so on.

    If I were a composer, I'd want to see what I could learn from each of these discoveries. I'd be particularly interested in how relatively simple harmonic designs go hand in hand with dizzying textural complexity. Pop music is full of fresh ideas about tonality. In this area, classical composers are lagging behind. They are trained from an early age to view tonality as a closed, finished world, not as a language undergoing endless evolution. Minimalism, of course, is the great exception, which is why it's so hugely significant. Recent European trends such as Spectralism and the New Complexity have, to my ears, offered a few new processes but no new ideas in the deeper sense -- major changes in the personality of sound.

    a related reader comment
    another reader comment

    No apology to pop and film
    By Andrew Druckenbrod
    posted @ 07/29/2004 9:26 am

    Perhaps because we agree here on the problematic nature of this blog’s posited question (and critics can’t stand to agree for too long!), the thrust of this debate has shifted from what is the next big idea for classical music to how it interacts with culture’s big ideas/movements. These are clearly two different concerns, and the latter is much more interesting, I think.

    I'd argue that many of the big art musical ideas of the past had less to do with cultural trends, certainly less that the representational and literal art forms of theater, art and literature did. It’s not surprising that Greg would find more relevance from film, a two-dimensional imitation of reality. Nor is it surprising that popular music, with its weight on lyrics, would give us, “the big, scene-setting ideas in music of the last thirty or forty years” as Alex Ross puts it.

    Up-to-the-minute cultural relevance is not exactly what art music has been about. The meaning of tones and pure sound -- the realm of most art music -- is slippery. It’s not clear that the average 19th-century concert-goer or nobleman “got” or that Beethoven wanted them to get that he used sonata form (if they even knew what that was) to show the Romantic ideal of the triumph of the human spirit in the face of adversity in a piece like Symphony No. 5. That despite the fact that its transformation from C minor to major, and the pitfalls therein, is as obvious as a road map to us now. (And this was in the height of music’s ascendance and perception as an art form.) Likewise, it is safe to say that the folk song “L’homme arme” was more a reflection on culture to the medieval masses than the many masses that subsequently incorporated it.

    To second Justin, art music’s interest compared to pop is not to be negated just because it might occasionally lag behind in cultural relevance – especially since quite often art music is as germane, it is just not as disseminated.

    Actually, art music has often connected with the times for me, whether through a piece by Randy Woolf or John Adams or whomever, but am I to discount this because tens of thousands of other people haven’t shared that experience? To view classical music as lacking compared to pop and film because it doesn’t obviously interact with the (wholly problematic) zeitgeist or do so in great numbers is to somewhat misunderstand music’s perception/role/existence throughout the years.

    Listening to classical music is often such a personal experience, and the meaning so intimate even when hearing it en masse at a concert, that it doesn’t usually affect two people the same way. I love that, though! I don’t want everything I see and hear to be interpreted the same by everyone who sees it or hears it. I always am suspicious of mass opinion, and art music -- especially when live -- allows for a privacy of experience and individuality of response that much film and pop (both of which I love) often don’t.

    Gender footnote
    By Anne Midgette
    posted @ 07/29/2004 9:07 am

    Since Scott brought up the topic of diversity, I have to insert a correction: the New York Times has never HIRED a woman as a classical music critic. They have allowed a woman to review classical music for them on a freelance, non-contractual basis for the last 3.5 years.

    I expressed my own thoughts on the issue of female critics a couple of years ago in a piece I wrote for Andante.com. I think it adds a few other names to Scott's list.

    Another preamble
    By Anne Midgette
    posted @ 07/29/2004 7:50 am

    The pace of this debate is fast and furious - I wanted to outline a few of my own ideas on the topic before jumping into the fray.

    I think the premise of this blog itself demonstrates part of the problem - with classical music, or indeed with art in general. It’s not only, as John said, that big ideas become clear in hindsight. It’s that the whole notion that there should be a “big idea” is of relatively recent vintage - and reflects a self-consciousness about the role of art that basically wasn’t present until the late 19th century at the earliest.

    There are a couple of ways to understand what's meant here by "big idea" - a compositional school or movement on the one hand, a topic that reflects current socio-political events and thought on the other. Today, it is probably impossible to come to the interest of the general public through style alone - John Cage and his generation may have been the last who were actually able to shock. (Kyle, I would love to be proved wrong on this if you have counter-examples.) Nonetheless, there are too many little self-styled schools and directions and movements in today's music world: dozens of cliques more concerned about their own style than about the field in general.

    (So it isn’t only the general public that seems not to care about big ideas in music. At the opening night of Lincoln Center’s Louis Andriessen festival this spring, my husband, Greg Sandow, observed that other composers hadn’t turned out. I protested at first, but ultimately had to agree that the few who were there were very much in Andriessen’s artistic camp. It’s worth asking how one expects the general public to care about what's going on in music when many in the field can’t be bothered to get out and hear the American premiere of a seminal piece by a major (and idea-full) living composer. In the 19th century, debates about music started in part among composers who were curious about the new music of their colleagues.)

    But the concept of “big ideas” is also present in the notion that art will matter more to a wider public if it explicitly addresses important topics that concern that public. This notion has even been borne out, in music, by Corigliano’s AIDS symphony or, even more, Gorecki’s Third (Greg holds that the Holocaust subtext of this piece didn’t play a role in its success; I believe it did). It leads to the unfortunate fallacy that art has to address such topics in order to be important, which is a tacit admission that art is not very important to most people in and of itself.

    Meanwhile, any way you define “big idea,” I think that the attempt explicitly to include it in a work of art tends to clog the creative process. In my experience, it’s the works of art that are trying hardest to be Significant that end up being the weakest, freighted with all kinds of extraneous baggage that interferes with their artistic unity (everyone can think of plenty of examples of musical compositions - even prize-winning ones - that bear this out). As a friend of mine once advised me, Don’t set out to write a great book; just set out to write the book you can write.

    So one of my starting points is that I think we would be better off if we could get away from the search for big ideas - from the concern, that is, with proving our own relevance (however much that relevance seems to be dwindling).

    READER: If Wishes Were Ideas
    By John Harris
    posted @ 07/29/2004 7:11 am

    Interesting stuff you're all writing. As someone who runs an ensemble that specialises in contemporary music and as one who works directly with composers every single day, I'd like to chuck my tuppence worth in, from a professional point of view. The trouble with this entire debate is... read more

    pop envy
    By Justin Davidson
    posted @ 07/29/2004 6:11 am

    I agree with Alex that the developments in pop music are a rich source of ideas for classical (to use the poor term we're stuck with) composers, but I have trouble with the contention that popular musicians have a lock on all the really interesting, exciting, intellectually provocative developments. It's sort of circular to say that popular music is "scene setting"  - it's the soundtrack of today, which is what makes it popular. But if we go there, we'd have to say, I think, that the biggest ideas in music are represented by Britney Spears and Hilary Duff - which is to say, vacuum-packed vacuity.

    But let's get back to the unpopular realm:

    In Kyle's postminimalist catalogue, he mentioned Jonathan Kramer, a composer, music theorist and Columbia professor who died a couple of months ago. It's too bad we can't consult him for this blog, because Jonathan's analytical writings about postmodernism dealt with disunity as a new  organizing principle. 

    That's profoundly new. One thing Brahms and Wagner shared was a credo of musical unity, the sense that a piece of music grows organically, from a motivic, rhythmic or harmonic seed - the analogy to botany is apt since the 19th Century was so fascinated with the interrelatedness of the natural world.

    Stravinsky did his best to explode unity as an overriding principle. But other composers reasserted it - serialism obviously, also Steve Reich, who engineers his pieces with great rigor. Even John Adams' work has returned to a kind of developmental approach: "Naive and Sentimental Music" unfurls quite like a 19th Century symphony.

    But many, many other recent composers, including the few from Kyle's roster whose work I know a little, fill their pieces with unresolved conflict and juxtapositions they feel no need to justify. (I'd put Alfred Schnittke and Thomas Ades somewhere near the top of that list.)

    So maybe the disunity and fragmentation we've all been commenting on is the big idea.

Wednesday, July 28
    Jotting II: Personally, I’d rather not get a telephone call from Stalin.
    By Charles Ward
    posted @ 07/28/2004 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 essence.

    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.

    A Potential Goldmine?
    By Alex Ross
    posted @ 07/28/2004 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?

    right on!
    By John Rockwell
    posted @ 07/28/2004 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.

    READER: What Do The Critics Want?
    By John Shaw
    posted @ 07/28/2004 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 more

    Truly big classical ideas
    By Greg Sandow
    posted @ 07/28/2004 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 in Russian.)

    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 really get.

    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.

    Where was THAT in classical music?
    By Justin Davidson
    posted @ 07/28/2004 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.

    Another view
    By Greg Sandow
    posted @ 07/28/2004 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?

    Names and their Inadequacy
    By Kyle Gann
    posted @ 07/28/2004 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 involved.

    Movements and media
    By Scott Cantrell
    posted @ 07/28/2004 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 digestion.

    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.

    Initial posting. Big Ideas--Who Needs Them?
    By Wynne Delacoma
    posted @ 07/28/2004 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 headed?

    Brahms and Wagner
    By John Rockwell
    posted @ 07/28/2004 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.

    READER: Ideas From Critics?
    By Jan Herman
    posted @ 07/28/2004 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 themselves."... read more

    READER: Where's Music's Toni Morrison?
    By Gary Panetta
    posted @ 07/28/2004 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 consciousness... read more

    To John Rockwell: Styles, Not Politics
    By Alex Ross
    posted @ 07/28/2004 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 Emerson.

    The Idea and its Conditions
    By Kyle Gann
    posted @ 07/28/2004 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.

    Question for Kyle
    By John Rockwell
    posted @ 07/28/2004 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, thing?

    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 Next Medium-Sized Idea
    By Kyle Gann
    posted @ 07/28/2004 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 film scores?

    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 cohesiveness.

    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.

    Apology & comment
    By Justin Davidson
    posted @ 07/28/2004 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 phase?


    To Alex and Justin; the pedant at work
    By John Rockwell
    posted @ 07/28/2004 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 column.

    Listening for Passionate Engagement
    By Alex Ross
    posted @ 07/28/2004 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 over.

    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 passionate engagement.

Tuesday, July 27
    READER: Where Are The Women?
    By Virginie Foucault
    posted @ 07/27/2004 6:50 pm

    How's GENDER PARITY for a big idea in classical music: within performing ensembles, administrative corps, boards of directors, journalists, and... the participants in artsjournal.com's blog?

    Jotting I: We do have a Big Idea
    By Charles Ward
    posted @ 07/27/2004 4:48 pm
    Musicians reflexively think a big idea means a dominant musical style, like classicism or serialism, but such a style often simply reflects the political, social and intellectual ideas that shape an era. I believe classical music in the United States currently is dominated by the radical egalitarianism that emerged politically in the 1960s. The belief that anything and everything should be equal has produced a period, at least in the United States, where any classical style, sufficiently well crafted, is acceptable - or should be, according to the radical egalitarian dogma.

    The problem for classical music is how, aided by revolutions brought on by such things the invention of the transistor and the emergence of jet travel, that egalitarianism has shaken the foundations of many of its mainstay institutions.

    How big is a big idea?
    By Justin Davidson
    posted @ 07/27/2004 4:37 pm

    I’m not sure that the Big Ideas of the past seemed quite so monolithic to the people who held or opposed them, except in the philosophically oh-so-self-conscious Germany of the late 19th Century. (I’m talking about the puffed-up “Music of the Future debates.)

    Surely Mozart, for instance, saw himself as fusing many of the idioms that were available to him – Lutheran chorales, Counterreformation counterpoint, learned fugue, popular German melodrama, over-the-top Italian opera, harpsichord improvisations, mooning Romantic melodies, cut-rate fanfares, folk songs, Mannheim gut-punches, and so on. He manipulated all these disparate genres and mushed them together with post-modern panache. Categories, to him as to us, seemed valuable insofar as they could be broken down

    I think of today’s compositional scene as a generation in search of a synthesis, rather than a new order. In going to concerts of new music I’m always struck, not so much any more by the absence of a lingua franca, but by the need to have currents and traditions merge and jostle. Each piece becomes a little Queens.

    It’s easy to see the appeal of this approach, which mirrors census data and patterns of migration. America now boasts its first generation of composers born and raised in Asia ( Tan Dun, Chen Yi, Zhou Long, Bright Sheng , to mention only the Chinese contingent) producing a large body of music that is about cultural conflict and accommodation, which is the issue of our time.

    What puzzles me, though, is the feeling that in this free-for-all it’s still possible to distinguish the good from the bad. Quality is not dead. The music of Osvaldo Golijov blends Jewish klezmer, Russian romanticism, Argentinian tango, Israeli folk song, a pan-Latin assortment of rhythms and North American minimalism into an exhilarating hybrid. Yet the other day, I went to hear Paul Taylor (aka DJ Spooky that Subliminal Kid) preside over “Transmetropolitan,” an evening of cross-cultural electronic music and literature that struck me as so much amateurish feelgood globalism.

    So what’s the difference? A strong compositional hand, a personal sensibility capable of treating a superabundance of sources like so much reusable clay. When that sort of spirit emerges, a fitful consensus develops. Golijov regularly makes crowds go wild and critics shed their shells.

    That’s fine for those who are already in the concert hall, but can a wider cultural consensus develop behind a musical idea today? Can a composer ever again capture the popular imagination? That’s a topic for another blog.

    Initial entry
    By John Rockwell
    posted @ 07/27/2004 4:31 pm

    Big ideas tend to be backward projections. At any point in music history there have been controversies and warring schools and pedants to pronounce that some composers weren't even composing music at all. Right now, we certainly seem to be in flux, but there seems to me to be several points around which a new "big idea," or big ideas, could coalesce -- or have coalesced.

    One is the connection between the Western tradition and various forms of what we are told is the politically incorrect term world music. This flows all which way, of course: Western composers being influenced by exotic cultures, exotics being influenced by us, exotics being influenced by other exotics (e.g., Bollywood music being big in non-Indian Africa).

    Another is the high-low connection, about which enough said already, at least for now. Another is the impact of technology. Yet another is our shifting attitude toward the various forms of musical modernism, the old uptown-downtown wars being easily perceived now as having been struggles between variants of modernism.

    I think big ideas are still very much possible, but I would challenge one aspect of this mega-blog's written premise. I don't think ideas coalesce (among whom?), and then that they gain "traction with a critical mass of composers." I think composers make music (sometimes linked with ideas, however polemically expressed, and sometimes linked with other composers) and then critics and other camp-followers catch on, articulate them however crudely, and finally turn them into pedantry, by which time the next big idea has already coalesced.

    A blurry patchwork
    By Scott Cantrell
    posted @ 07/27/2004 3:42 pm

    "The Next Big Thing?" Ah, how we journalists love to find and name trends.

    What are the trends today? Mainly fragmentation: all those web sites, all those cable channels, all those phone companies. The problem with life today, as my mother has observed, is that there are too many choices.

    And--dare I say it?--all those composers. Surely there are more people today calling themselves composers than at any previous time in history. The most devoted of us "professional listeners" hear only a tiny fraction of new music. How can we presume to pontificate on trends?

    But this has been a pet peeve I've long had with at least some colleagues. I remember Michael Walsh, when Time magazine still had a classical music critic, naming the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra the best orchestra in the country. Had he heard the St. Louisians often enough, and the competition often enough, to pass so sweeping a judgement? Come, now. For that matter, how would one pick "the best orchestra?" Or "the greatest conductor," as Newsweek once dubbed Herbert von Karajan. (As Anna Russell used to say of The Ring, "I'm not making this us, you know."

    The biggest problem for composers today, it seems to me, is that we all have so much music in our ears so much of the time. Amid this welter of music past and present, it must be harder than at any previous time to find one's own compositional voice. There are those, I realize, who toot the horn of eclecticism, but is anyone out there (apart from, maybe Lyric Opera of Chicago) prepared to pump for William Bolcom as a great composer? A skilled and clever one, okay--but great?

    Yes, Bach brought together elements from the musical cultures of Germany, Italy and France. He wrote organ chorale preludes modeled on 16th-century choral music. So did Brahms. But somehow they found ways to set their own seals, to refresh their models.

    So much of the newer orchestral music I hear sounds like rehashed gestures from early 20th-century composers who did it better the first time. (Can you say "Lowell Liebermann?") The newer American operas getting the most performances--Mark Adamo's Little Women, Jake Heggie's Dead Man Walking--seem almost willfully impersonal. If there's a trend in newer American operas, it's nondescript, free-floating arioso.

    American politics has become vehemently partisan, but--at least to an observer--our musical scene seems to be a blurry patchwork. Composers who get performed, at least in the admittedly conservative Dallas/Fort Worth scene, tend to be the ones that "get along," that "play well with others." The vehement partisanship of the young Boulez now seems unimaginably quaint.

    But if there's no "big thing" in composition, the same is true with performers. No pleiad of pianists dominates the scene as Horowitz and Rubinstein once did (at least in the US). How many typical symphony concertgoers could name even five conductors?

    Ours seems to be an age of leveling. And of relativism: one thing's as good as another. Elitism is a dirty word. Critics are hanging on by the skin of their teeth.

    Alternate Universe
    By Kyle Gann
    posted @ 07/27/2004 2:59 pm
    The question we’ve been asked is: Why is there no big musical idea that dominates music at the moment? Asking me this is somewhat like asking Mother Teresa why there are no poor people anymore. I’ve spent 22 years chronicling the latest phases and fads in music as they go by: art rock, free improv, postminimalism, totalism, East/West fusions, political music, interactive computer music, MAX/MSP, DJ-ing as an artform, etc. So I suppose what the question boils down to is: Gee, Kyle Gann, why is it that you’ve had no impact whatever?

    I do think there are some reasons for a widespread perception that there are no attractive musical ideas anymore, no common language, no styles, no -isms. But the perception is not so much in the music as in the limited imagination of music critics and those watching the music scene. Many believe, to put it succinctly, that musical changes in the future have to be analogous to changes in the past, and therefore if the same kind of changes aren’t happening, then there must not be any changes. But here are a few ways in which today’s music scene differs from the past:

    1. Throughout the 20th century, each new movement represented an advance in complexity and abstraction over the last. Serialism brought that process to a dead end. Today there are plenty of ideas that dozens and dozens of composers gravitate toward, but they tend not to be difficult to understand, often more physical than conceptual. There’s an expectation that the next big idea must be some sort of composing system, but that line of thought came to an end, at least in America.

    2. Relatedly, one thing that composers of my generation have almost universally lost patience with is the presumption of historical inevitability. The idea that 12-tone music was the inevitable music of the future and that anyone who didn’t learn to write it was “useless” (Pierre Boulez’s word) left a bitter taste in our mouths. So if your criterion for the new musical idea is that it has some kind of mandate behind it, you’re not going to find it - we’re proud to say.

    3. Many critics, following the Classical Script, keep looking for “the next big idea” in the realm of orchestra music. This is like an old dog on guard at a foxhole for years after the fox slipped out the back way and moved to another state. The new ideas that attract today’s composers are manifested in computer music and chamber music, the latter often involving unconventional, composer-led ensembles. Those who write for orchestra tend to be the more conservative composers, and even those who aren’t conservative have to pare down and simplify their style when they write for orchestra due to the medium’s hidebound traditions and extreme rehearsal limitations. Even John Adams, the most successful American composer for orchestra of our time, has said publicly over and over that the interesting music today isn’t for orchestra. Nonetheless, I don’t believe there is a force on earth that could make most music critics go look for it anywhere else. Like that old dawg, they’ve got it in their heads that the New Idea will make its way into orchestra music, and that’s where they’re going to look.

    So what are the big new ideas? Well, my perception is that, most importantly, there have been two major movements that have grown out of minimalism, which I and others call postminimalism and totalism. Both of these are very widespread movements, especially postminimalism, which has dozens of adherents from Hawaii to Florida and from Maine to Mexico. I’ve got a discography of postminimal and totalist music you can look at, and a 1999 article about how the movements originated. I wrote an article defining postminimalism for New Music Box, and another defining totalism. In my book American Music in the Twentieth Century, I discuss the educational and cultural conditions that led composers into these particular styles, and you can read that part on my web site. And these aren’t the only farflung movements out there, just the ones that I’ve studied the most.

    Of course, you can say, and some will, that postminimalism and totalism haven’t attracted much public attention: ergo, they are not the Big New Ideas. But there are a lot of reasons that new music doesn’t reach the public today, and inherent attractiveness of the music is not the most telling. After all, Le Marteau wasn’t much of a box-office hit, but it put serialism on the map, just because back then people took new musical movements seriously. Today’s postminimal and totalist composers can’t get their CDs into stores, can’t find distribution. The music’s there, and tons of it is really attractive. The big ideas it manifests aren’t perceived because so few people hear enough new music to realize the similarities among so many young and mid-career composers. By and large, it is not the composers who are to blame for that, nor (quite often) the music itself.

    There's my opening salvo, anyway.

    Taking Issue With The Question
    By Andrew Druckenbrod
    posted @ 07/27/2004 2:53 pm
    Not for some postmodern heck of it, but I must take issue with the question itself. I think the idea of unifying styles is misleading and even untrue, historically. I think the better term is "language," and even that has never been as unified or unifying as the history and theory books suggest. The language of art music in the Middle Ages was that of monophony, whether a single voice or unison singing, in either sacred chant or secular song. But plainchant or trouvere/troubadour song, respectively, existed in many different styles, rites and variants.

    The same could be said of the Renaissance, where the common language was polyphony, but different schools produced alternate sounds, text setting, timbres, etc. In the baroque era, it is not as if the famous Monteverdi and Artusi controversy over style led to later composers adhering just to Monteverdi's compositional aesthetic. And the common practice period witnessed a pan-European adherence to tonality, however national styles differed so greatly as to belie any gravitating to one big concept of music.

    I guess I am getting carried away with examples, but there are so many. People are always looking to codify, list, label and define the world (especially in hindsight) in order to wrap our heads around large constructs, but it's never that simple.

    So, with that buzzkill behind me, I must say I am thrilled there isn't a major idea, language or style dominating the scene these days.

    It's one thing to teach harmony, counterpoint, theory and compositional techniques to students, to let them know what has come before and to help them understand what makes the standout works of the past so exemplary. But why force their vision into a web of rules and shoulds? Few creative artists benefit from a muse who is a schoolmarm.

    Much good a dominating presence serial composition was for the world. Composers who broke out of that mold and now write non-12-tone music discuss the dodecaphonic years with a ghastly remembrance usually reserved for victims of political oppression. "When I was going to Princeton in the '60s, it was so much in the air that you had to be [twelve tonal]," David Del Tredici told me last year in a interview. "No one said it; it was just the environment -- that is really powerful."

    Even twelve tone's grip on the musical world was less than was thought at the time. Every day, it seems we find out about composers who continued writing tonal music of some sort, not to mention the radical departures of Harry Partch, Morton Feldman and George Crumb.

    Now listeners and composers have much more to choose from. Composers today can create their own language without repercussions. There are certain stylistic threads, of course, from Coplandesque to post-minimalist, but composers can really establish their own language as much as style, and then experiment further. An excellent composer in my city, the University of Pittsburgh's Eric Moe, has established his own diatonic, but not necessarily tonal language that is unmistakably his although it synthesizes many techniques.

    If it is broken, don't fix it. Let works stand or fall on their own merit, not propped by formulaic conventions. Just listening without the incessant need to judge music against a central theoretical trunk can be a liberating experience. Sure, today's multiplicity of styles and languages can make it harder on critics when writing about music, but it is well worth it.

    I am sure that a new dominating force will come that will limit what is acceptable for composers. It's the way history transpires. We should be thankful we have this hiatus.

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