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Critical Conversation
Classical Music Critics on the Future of Music

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


Friday, August 6
    The purpose of music
    By Linda Rogers
    posted @ 08/06/2004 10:46 am

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


    READER: Thank you to all
    By Jennifer Higdon
    posted @ 08/06/2004 10:10 am

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


    READER: To Corey Dargel and Kyle Gann
    By Garth Trinkl
    posted @ 08/06/2004 9:21 am
    Corey, I realize that young composers, such as yourself, may feel that this conversation has only touched upon a few of your immediate interests, and concerns, as working composers today.  I wish that you had encouraged some of your under - 30 colleagues to participate here, along with you.  There is still time.  read more

    READER: re:Where Are The Young Voices?
    By Andrea La Rose
    posted @ 08/06/2004 9:21 am

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


    READER: To Justin: Art can be entertaining, but it is not entertainment
    By Arthur J. Sabatini
    posted @ 08/06/2004 8:42 am

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

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


    Final Disinformation

    By Kyle Gann
    posted @ 08/06/2004 8:41 am
    Well maybe I hang out in the seedier parts of the internet, but this has been as civilized a forum as I’ve ever been involved in. People ask where we found the time. I wrote my longest post in the wee hours of the night, kept awake by a recalcitrant tuna steak from a restaurant in which I probably should have had the foresight not to order the tuna rare. It may have sounded like it.

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

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

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

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

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

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


    READER: Where Are The Young Voices?
    By Corey Dargel
    posted @ 08/06/2004 8:21 am
    At the risk of coming across as ageist, I want to point out that this
    conversation on the Future of Music is missing a vital element --
    contributions from young people. Granted, I don't know exactly how old
    everyone is, but with the exception of a very few Reader contributions, I
    have infered that most of the contributors are at least ten years older than
    I am (I am 26). The future of music is in the hands of the younger
    generation, and if this conversation is to be "Fair and Balanced," it should
    include their perspectives. read more

    Over and out - an anti-rant rant
    By Justin Davidson
    posted @ 08/06/2004 7:05 am

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

     

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

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


Thursday, August 5
    READER: Classical Music Doesn't Fit The PR Mold
    By Dennis Bathory-Kitsz
    posted @ 08/05/2004 9:21 pm

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


    READER: Eclecticism Is Better Anyway
    By Hale Jacob
    posted @ 08/05/2004 7:41 pm
    I have grown fond of the idea that we are living in a time without a universally-understood, glaringly-obvious big idea. It doesn’t mean that we suffer from a dearth of salient ideas. The future of music in the past has been driven by the younger generation’s reaction to established practices. I would like to think that the
    current atmosphere is an appropriate (and apparently effective) reaction to this classifying and labeling tradition. It reminds me of a tactic we used to employ in high school to ditch campus during lunch. We would gather as a mass on the corner, and on the count of three, take off running in every direction so that it was impossible for the lone school administrator to chase after all of us at once. Music history textbooks relate a similar scenario for the latter half of the twentieth century, when composers followed no logical course (as they supposedly had before), but instead split off in numerous directions, leaving the writers of history scrambling to follow the threads and make sense of it all. But isn’t it more fun this way? read more

    READER: What Is Live Performance, Anyway?
    By Steve Layton
    posted @ 08/05/2004 7:37 pm
    The ascendancy of recorded music for our picture of classical music, both new
    and old, is definitely a "big idea" worth paying attention to. Yes, it's been
    going on for a while now. But not only does it continue to increase its
    dominance over how we get to know the whole historical tapestry laid out behind
    us, as well as how we experience much current acoustic music (it's the only way
    I can know almost any Grisey, Rihm, late Feldman or Cage, etc.), it's creating a
    whole form of music that *intentionally* exists nowhere else. read more

    New music game theory
    By Joshua Kosman
    posted @ 08/05/2004 5:45 pm
    After a hasty and none-too-systematic hoovering of the week's posts, I'm surprised to find myself haunted by Kyle Gann's anecdote about the Austrian burghers who faithfully attended each year's Graz festival to hear music they hated. Yes, it's wonderful that they felt easy about asserting that the music was always terrible, and that they didn't seem to regard hearing crappy music as either a tragedy or an outrage. Still, the steady waste of their time struck me as kind of sad; weren't there good books they could've been reading?

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

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

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


    What I learned
    By Scott Cantrell
    posted @ 08/05/2004 5:15 pm

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

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

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

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

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

    5) World music is having an impact...

    6) As is pop music. And...

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

    Regards to all.

    S.


    A minor quibble
    By Scott Cantrell
    posted @ 08/05/2004 5:01 pm

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

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


    READER: Some Simple Gratitude
    By Mark Stryker
    posted @ 08/05/2004 4:07 pm

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

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


    READER: But What of the Squeakfartists?
    By John Shaw
    posted @ 08/05/2004 2:44 pm
    The distinction between live music & recorded is [fuzzy]. Pop is clearer about this than classical.  Records influenced pop almost from the get-go; the limitations of the 3-minute side of a 78-rpm disc dictated form. Pop has evolved such that records are primary, live performance secondary. Classical, that’s not the case.  Live is primary, and most sound systems can’t even cope with the wide dynamic range of Ravel’s “Bolero,” to pick an obvious example. Except.  Except for the tape collagists and Squeakfartists and others who rely on high technology. Sorry we haven’t heard from the Squeakfartists and tape collagists in this dialogue. read more

    Late to the party
    By Joshua Kosman
    posted @ 08/05/2004 2:09 pm
    To paraphrase Lloyd Bridges, I picked the wrong week to leave town for my brother's wedding. You folks seem to have picked over the carcass of this subject with admirable, indeed terrifying, thoroughness during my absence. At this late date, I'd just like to stress a point that has been alluded to numerous times but perhaps never singled out for emphasis; please forgive me if it has and I overlooked it. That is the importance of the audience in the artistic economy (not to mention the market economy). As a critic, my sole allegiance is to the audience of which I'm a part (this is my fundamental difference from Kyle or, um, Virgil Thomson); so I like to keep in mind that any important musical idea is going to have to be worked out at some level in collaboration with the present listenership -- which means there has to be one, being addressed in a decipherable language and doing its part to listen.

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

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


    Farewell?
    By John Rockwell
    posted @ 08/05/2004 1:35 pm

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


    To Andrew
    By Kyle Gann
    posted @ 08/05/2004 12:50 pm
    So, my question to you is, taking as a truism (hah!) that the -isms and categories are not ideal, and the fact that, in a mainstream publication, music examples, audio extracts and musical terminology aren’t feasible, how do we describe music quickly and succinctly to people? - Druckenbrod

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

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

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

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

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


    READER: Who Said Anything About Pop Musicians?
    By Garth Trinkl
    posted @ 08/05/2004 11:47 am
    Gentlemen, may I respectfully Recall the Question: If the history of music is the recorded conversation of ideas, then where do we find ourselves in that conversation at the start of the 21st Century? ... I see no reference to you being invited to learn from pop musicians.  [ArtsJournal managing editor] Douglas McLennan, in fact, in his "No Apocalypse Now", and in his cited "Newsweek" column, asked the musical community to learn from the research and development structures of the technology, business, medical, and film and publishing creative communities.  I recall no mention made to learning from pop musicians... read more

    Some tail-end thoughts
    By John von Rhein
    posted @ 08/05/2004 10:34 am

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

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

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

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

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

     


    Reality Bites
    By Andrew Druckenbrod
    posted @ 08/05/2004 9:19 am

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

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

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

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

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


    READER: Gann's Got It Right
    By Jan Herman
    posted @ 08/05/2004 8:37 am
    Regarding [Kyle Gann's] entry titled Leave No Term Unstoned:   What a great post, especially for us non-specialists... Once upon a time, back in 1971 I think it was and in another life, I published a little book called "The Identical Lunch," which is based on a musical score by Knowles. The amusing text by Corner is about a tunafish lunch and its variations... I have no idea what "ism" applies, but maybe [Kyle] or someone else could come up with one.  read more

    Kyle to Kyle (or vice versa)
    By Kyle Gann
    posted @ 08/05/2004 8:37 am
    I'm surprised to receive even a half-sympathetic response, but people named Kyle are so... reasonable, aren't they? Certainly lots and lots of people don't like being pigeonholed, but a few have - notably Henry Cowell, whom I consider my guiding spirit in so many ways, and who once, going a lot further than I ever would, divided up all American composers of the 1930s into 13 categories. (Antheil got a category all to himself, but it was hardly complimentary.) But I'm just not capable of thinking of it the way you describe it. For me, an -ism isn't a drawer to stuff composers in, but a light, a luminous idea, that gets reflected through one crystal or another at various times. For me, the fact that Degas and Manet both reflected the luminous cultural moment that was Impressionism, and came up with such different results anyway, enhances their individuality - much more than if they were just presented among 2000 other French painters, more than if they had painted in isolation with no peer contact. I guess it's safe to say that there's a wide range in the extent to which musicians connect music with words, and musicians like me in that respect - I hear music, and words flood into my head - seem extremely rare at the moment. But while I'm not surprised there aren't more composers like that, I would have thought the experience was almost universal for critics. And it clearly isn't. I'm a natural-born realist in a nominalist world.


    What does it all mean?
    By Kyle MacMillan
    posted @ 08/05/2004 8:11 am
    As Alex Ross says in his most recent entry, it has been quite stimulating to read these exchanges. But I've been wondering what the broader implications are of this process. Yes, hundreds and even thousands of people have been reading this blog as it has gone along, but the diffusion has still been relatively modest, considering that popular stories just on the Denver Post website sometimes get more than 100,000 hits. It seems like this blog raises some interesting questions for us as critics. Was all of this a fun kind of insider exercise for us and a few of our closest readers? Or is there some way that we can apply this to our writing on an on-going basis? While we as critics are quite obviously passionate about the subjects we have debated in this blog, how do we get other people join in that passion? It is hard in the average metropolitan daily to really delve into any of these issues any depth, especially considering that so much of our time is spent doing such basics as best bets, previews and daily criticism. And perhaps that is what this blog's most important function is -- challenging all of us to constantly try to find ways to engage in just these kinds of discussions on our own newspaper or magazine pages and make them meaningful to our readers.   

    To Kyle Gann
    By Kyle MacMillan
    posted @ 08/05/2004 8:05 am

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


    READER: Big Ideas? How About Melody?
    By John N. McBaine
    posted @ 08/05/2004 7:25 am

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


    Leave No Term Unstoned
    By Kyle Gann
    posted @ 08/05/2004 7:04 am

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


    Baffled
    By Greg Sandow
    posted @ 08/05/2004 6:25 am

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Wednesday, August 4
    Recessional
    By Alex Ross
    posted @ 08/04/2004 6:39 pm

    I must leave early, so here are my last thoughts in what has been a lively exchange. Thank you to all colleagues and readers. I’d written a few paragraphs on elitism and contemporary styles and other familiar topics, and I may still put them on my blog, but the best way to bow out is to quote from some e-mails that have piled up in my inbox, which render everything I was going to say superfluous: “I think the most beautiful thing about composing now, as opposed to then, is that there is the option to ‘hang out’ in the crazy network of music that is available. Writing music feels like I'm having a conversation or writing an e-mail or making a phone call rather than writing an essay. It has to do with the way people talk with their friends – a little language begins to develop, little nuances and half-truths and leitmotifs.… Wise young composers are eating everything up in their path, devouring all the available musics and building a family made up of Conversants, rather than Inductees.... The Future, which I'll define here as representing a movement from Bad Attitude to Good Attitude, operates, like evolution, on the level of the individual, not on the level of the institution. If you see writing as a form of social engagement, you soon realize that it doesn't make any sense to be undiplomatic, ever.”


    READER: so what's the big idea?
    By John Shaw
    posted @ 08/04/2004 4:28 pm
    I may have missed something, but here’s the tally of Big Ideas so far: 1. There is no big idea. 1.A.  Fragmentation, or the lack of a big unifying idea, is the big idea. 1.A.i.  The individualism of composers going their own way is the big idea. 1.B.  Critics worrying about whether there is a big idea is a big new phenomenon. 2.  Polyrhythmic expansions on the rhythmic complexities of the classic minimalists is a big, or at least a medium-sized, idea. read more


    For Joan La Barbara
    By Alex Ross
    posted @ 08/04/2004 3:12 pm
    Joan La Barbara's caution against "isms," categories, and lists is possibly the most sensible thing that's yet appeared here. We are, of course, just trying to have a conversation — throw out some ideas, have a few disputes, show where we're coming from. I feel as though casual posts are being scrutinized as if carved in marble. I guess, though, it's always good for critics to get smacked around a little. Profound, mysterious irony: some of us don't take criticism very well. A composer correspondent has compared our blog to eleven-year-old kids trying to explain their social networks: "...so then Garrett and I used to be friends, but then her dad got a promotion and now she's really stuck up, and then my friend John well he's not really my friend but I'm going to invite him to my bar mitzvah anyway..." Ouch. In defense of my own list, which may very well contain Salieris and Hummels and a Hermann Goetz or two in the bunch, all I can say is, this is the music I believe in, and in order to present some kind of legible picture to readers I am definitely going to be selective. If John Adams turns out to be the mediocrity of all time, OK, but I've been singing "This is prophetic" to myself since 1989, and that's all I have to go on.

    ADDENDUM: John Adams is my own example. Ms. La Barbara did not place him at any position on the Mozart-Salieri axis.

    ADDENDUM 2: Apologies to Morton Feldman for the title.


    READER: Point of Clarification
    By Marc Geelhoed
    posted @ 08/04/2004 2:43 pm
    I didn't mean to imply that I think it's wonderful that someone is thrown into a violent rage by a new piece of music they didn't like just because it shows that they have a pulse or that they're obviously engaged, as Kyle pointed out I did (can't seem to attach a hyperlink; it's Nothing to Do with Big Ideas). I was thinking more along the lines that I'd rather have someone disappointed and saying so about a new work rather than having them A) Feel they're not smart enough to express their opinion or B) Think they have to like it but don't know why they didn't... read more

    READER: A Little of This, A Little of That
    By B. Fleming
    posted @ 08/04/2004 2:25 pm

    If, in the past, composers have used their knowledge of audiences expectations to help make their creative decisions (in which case, composers with similar audiences would have a similar set of expectations against which to respond), then perhaps a new "big idea" or unifying idea will not be possible until a new creative directive (something that takes the place of the past's known quantity of audience expectations) emerges that can be responded to by multiple composers during a similar period in time.  read more


    READER: Lists, Categories, & Big Ideas Miss The Point
    By Joan La Barbara
    posted @ 08/04/2004 2:12 pm
    Nicholas Kenyon finally hit it on the mark!  The "Big Ideas", "isms" and named categories happen afterwards and, while it is interesting to see what name critics apply to certain groups of individual composers, many of those composers eschew the categories anyway, preferring to simply do their own work and get on with it.  Sometimes being included in a particular category has had an inhibiting effect on the expansion of the musical output of certain composers...  read more

    READER: Education & Audience Engagement
    By John Shaw
    posted @ 08/04/2004 2:03 pm
    Maybe it’s a function of growing up in the provinces (Kalamazoo, Mich., in my case), but I’ve never known people not to be confident in their dismissal of modern arts.  My pianist grandmother (B.A., piano, Northwestern, some time in the ‘20s) didn’t like the Schoenbergian strain and one year for Christmas bought me Henry Pleasants’ amusing diatribe “The Agony of Modern Music"... read more

    Challenges, if not ideas
    By Scott Cantrell
    posted @ 08/04/2004 12:54 pm

    Maybe instead of groping in the dark for "the next big idea" we should be listing the challenges we can see all too clearly. And trying to suggest ways to deal with them.

    The reactionary state of orchestras is one problem.

    What other artistic phenomenon is virtually unchanged in the last century? Where else, except debutante balls, do you still see men in tail coats? What kind of message does this convey in an increasingly casual and anti-elitist society? (I write this in my newspaper office, where my standard summer attire is a t-shirt and khakis.) When the Dallas Symphony Orchestra presented some "Casual Concerts" earlier this summer, the audiences were dramatically younger--and more attentive. Hardly a cough to be heard, as opposed to the veritable squadron of consumptives who seem to attend every main-season concert.

    If audiences are hostile to new music, orchestra musicians are scarcely less so. All too few conductors have any vital interest in music beyond Shostakovich. If they deign to notice American music at all, it's Copland, Barber and Gershwin. Period.

    If they're shamed into paying some attention to newer American music, it's apt to be a short, splashy curtain-raiser -- a short ride in a noisy machine. The purgative administered, everyone can wipe off and get on to the real music.

    The DSO, never terribly adventurous, now hardly dares program anything that the most casual concertgoer won't recognize. Anything else and, I'm reliably told, the marketing department says, "We can't sell that." They even put a stop to principal guest conductor Claus Peter Flor's idea of pairing the Schubert "Unfinished" and Bruckner Ninth symphonies. Chamber music groups around here evidently consider Bartok and Shostakovich the ne plus ultra of modern music.

    The season-subscription marketing scheme has been losing ground for decades. With leisure opportunities multiplying by the year, people are less and less willing to book themselves months in advance. Multiple subscription plans now offered in season brochures are as confusing as IRS forms. But then marketing concerts one by one is horribly expensive. I don't know the answer to all this, but maybe presenters should just offer open-ended quantity discounts: subscribe to any three concerts and get 5 percent off; take five concerts and get 10 percent off.

    Maybe we should be grateful for directorial imagination in opera. Has any opera newer than Billy Budd (1951) come close to joining the standard international repertory?


    To Anne, On Directors
    By Alex Ross
    posted @ 08/04/2004 12:07 pm
    I half-accept your criticism of my earlier post on the "tragic" phenomenon of opera direction. I still think the celebrity opera director is in some way a substitute for the composer, just as the celebrity conductor is a substitute. Both allow new-music-hating audiences to hear the same works over and over again with an overlay of novelty. (The suspicion of new music set in long before the modernist heyday, as we know. It was epidemic in the international music-loving middle class from about 1850 onward.) Pamela Rosenberg's regime in SF excited me not so much because of her fondness for daring directors but because of her commitment to 20th-century and new opera. Nevertheless, I went over the top in calling the situation "tragic." You can't have a modern opera house or orchestra without an established repertory. I want to hear the old operas along with everyone else. And I want to see intelligent, inventive direction. Robert Carsen basically rewrote "Die Frau ohne Schatten" in Vienna, and the result may have been superior to the original. The trouble is that it's an incredibly risky, unpredictable process, and some outright frauds have made a career of it. I still haven't quite recovered from the shock of "Parsifal" in Bayreuth, so forgive me if I painted with too broad a brush.

    The recontextualizing opera production isn't really new, though; it's an early 20th-century idea (twenties Berlin one more time) getting intensified by early 21st-century pop-culture shock tactics. I wouldn't put it at the very top of a list of Giant Notions in the performance world. So what might they be? I'm very excited by the idea of taking music out of traditional concert halls; the club-hopping cellist Matt Haimowitz has been mentioned, and he's done something quite amazing. I like the the idea of the bridge-building concert with smart pop musicians: the London Sinfonietta has been doing a lot of this England, collaborating with the minimalist-loving electronic artists on the Warp and Rephlex labels. I like the general loosening of the concert ritual -- getting rid of evening dress, talking briefly to the audience between pieces, fiddling with a shorter, intermission-free format. Manipulations of the internet in all its forms are pretty huge; I love reading musician bloggers, such as Helen Radice in the UK (see harpist.typepad.com). But these aren't really a-ha Ideas so much as practical consequences of a fundamental, inward change of attitude among younger musicians, who are deeply serious about their art but don't want to play out the staid, stuffy "classical" routine anymore. More on this anon.


    To market, to market
    By Anne Midgette
    posted @ 08/04/2004 11:43 am

    Andrew: Amen, and it isn't only the big ad campaigns either. Some of the pitches I get as a journalist are toe-curlingly awful.

    I don't even think this is off the subject, because part of the problem we face today is that marketing so assiduously seeks to avoid big ideas. I get pitches inviting me to puff on cigars with Susan Graham, or write about the "sex kitten" Lara St. John (in both cases, shortly AFTER I had done major features on the artists in question). But God forbid that any piece of marketing material, from a brochure to a program biography, should actually try to define an organization or performer or composer in ARTISTIC terms.


    Staging big ideas
    By Anne Midgette
    posted @ 08/04/2004 11:34 am

    It’s interesting to me that this is supposed to be a blog about big ideas, but has turned into a blog about which critics like which composers. I raised the question a few posts ago (that’s six weeks in blog years) about why big ideas in music necessarily have to be about NEW music. Since, as Wynne says, a large part of the classical music audience doesn’t like new music, new composers are not necessarily going to serve as ambassadors for Big Ideas, even if they’re dealing with the ideas that most interest us, as critics.

    Greg and I both posted earlier about some Big Ideas in the classical music field that have given rise to a lot of discussion and dissent among a wider public; but nobody else in this conversation seems to share our views.

    One of those ideas was contemporary stage direction, and I’m coming back at you, Alex, because I feel your earlier posting on the subject partakes of the hand-wringing one so often encounters when music critics talk about stage direction today. I share your regret that opera houses are not putting more energy into finding “bold new opera,” but I strongly disagree with the idea that interpretive stage direction is “a substitute for new opera,” or that its ascendancy is “a tragic state of affairs” - even if this idea represents a majority opinion in the USA. I think contemporary stage direction is a Big Idea. I am happy to concede that 90% of it is crap - like 90% of what’s new in any serious art form - but the idea of plumbing the operatic repertory to find new ways it can speak to an audience is not in itself awful or anti-musical or sacrilegious, even in cases where the result is not as successful as one might have wished.

    One of the main proponents of creative stage direction in this country is Pamela Rosenberg in San Francisco, whom you admire (as do I) for her “bold new ideas.” Many of those ideas involved opening people’s eyes to what this particular element of opera can be, at its best. I gather that she had some real clunkers and some glorious successes, which in my opinion is a pretty fine track record.


    Marketing madness
    By Andrew Druckenbrod
    posted @ 08/04/2004 11:32 am

    ...but I think the big classical music institutions, and I include record labels, ultimately lose more money by marketing poorly than they would by spending the extra bucks to do it well...

    -- Midgette

    Anne: No kidding about classical marketing; it is truly depressing! There is nothing more boring or off-putting than an orchestra’s ad campaign. Why can’t they understand that engaging in up-to-date marketing concepts doesn’t mean sullying the music on stage? As long as you don’t goof with the musical quality or programming, I say be adventurous with the ads. Besides, classical music itself is adventurous, not that you could tell that from their advertising (little “truth in advertising” here).

    This is off the thread, I guess, but if symphonies and operas can’t market the established, awe-inspiring ideas/music of the past, how in the world are they to be trusted to market cutting-edge music or the next big idea? There are such amazing composers working today, but when new ones are put on a subscription concert, it is still apologetically, usually not even mentioned (or barely mentioned) in the ads. I am sorry, but “world premiere” is not enough of a selling point!


    a few small ideas
    By Anne Midgette
    posted @ 08/04/2004 10:53 am

    Bravo to Kyle’s post on the right to dislike music: so true. In America, the so-called general public often doesn't feel it has a right to have an opinion about music - although members of the same public are perfectly ready to pontificate about books, movies, and visual art they know little or nothing about.

    And bravo to Dennis Bathory-Kitz on the failure of marketing. It’s so striking in this field that major organizations make tiny, half-hearted stabs at marketing their product, then sit back and wail about how difficult it is to sell classical music. If classical music - ANY kind, from the least-known composer on Kyle’s list to “Salome” at the Met - were marketed with the same savvy and effort of your average movie release, it would be a lot higher on the popular radar. (Sure, it takes money - but I think the big classical music institutions, and I include record labels, ultimately lose more money by marketing poorly than they would by spending the extra bucks to do it well. After all, they all already have marketing budgets and departments; but one wonders what their criteria are for how successfully those budgets are utilized.)

    It’s like Justin’s chicken-and-egg question about indifference and ignorance: it’s a vicious cycle. There’s an idea that classical music won’t interest people, so less is written about it and it's marketed less, so fewer people learn about it, so its frame of reference shrinks. This blog even propagates this, since its scope is pretty selective. I’m not sure that general readers, or even some classical music fans, will feel included in this discussion. (I’m hoping a reader will chime in here with another opinion.)


    Composers are the next big thing
    By Andrew Druckenbrod
    posted @ 08/04/2004 9:52 am

    Off for a few days and heeding Doug’s call to try again to address the question of what could be the next big idea(s) in music:

    Having gone on record as thinking composers today have the wonderful opportunity to establish their own language as well as style in a world bereft of a dominating stylistic presence, I propose further that we look at composers, not movements or styles, for the next big thing.

    This sounds like a tautology, but it's not. It follows the recent posts of this debate that suggest we take a longer listen to contemporary composers we might think are major (whoever that is to you, but you know what i mean). I would argue that the next big ideas in music are simply going to be nearly synonymous with what the best and most influential contemporary composers are doing. It’s about quality and originality these days, not imitation of others or adherence to a style.

    So often in the history of music (to which I keep trying to bring this debate back so it isn’t so focused on the last 50 years or so), musical development occurs when a composer does his/her own thing. Theorists writing about it later, performers performing it, and other composers aping it are also crucial, obviously, but it is the composer's originality that is the driver.

    So, the next big thing in art music is none other than Ades or Adams or whomever. The next big thing is not a thing at all, but people – composers. How one gets influential or programmed is a conversation for another blog. But I think the question of big things makes more sense thinking less of a style and more about specific composers.

    Just as Bach was quite different from others of the early 18th-century galant style, Adams (to pick one undeniably major composer) is different from most other contemporary composers, even post-minimalists.

    If this seems too great a splintering of genres – that every composer represents a style – just remember that the music of the past still relevant to us today is but 1 percent of all that’s been written. If we as critics are critical within an egalitarian view that gives all composers a chance in our ears, we can name who we think are the best composers and who are the most influential.

    Any of the composers on Kyle’s list, many of which I don’t know and cannot wait to hear (I love his column on contemporary composers in Chamber Music magazine, btw), can rise to this occasion. And even an influential composer like Adams doesn't force his style on others, though many may take from it and it may form a sort of language (though not a lingua franca). I think that today’s composers drive the train of compositional style rather than sit as passengers.


    READER: A Matter of Education
    By Beata Moon
    posted @ 08/04/2004 8:45 am

    How can we improve music education? I think Kyle’s point about American audiences not feeling competent to respond to music is an important one. So often have I witnessed children responding intuitively to classical music only to have their responses quelled by the adults...  read more


    READER: Back To Big Ideas
    By Garth Trinkl
    posted @ 08/04/2004 8:34 am
    So we're back to big ideas... you mean like having American composers team up with distinguished, and popular, poets and writers to write new operas and choral works for American opera houses
    and concert halls? ...  Glimpses of this idea include ...  read more

    To Justin
    By Kyle Gann
    posted @ 08/04/2004 7:32 am
    Well, if all you want me to admit is that some of New York's cultural institutions have swung more Downtown than Up-, you've got it. BAM has been virtually a Downtown institution since 1980, and Lincoln Center, initially under the open-minded guidance of Mr. Rockwell, has followed along. Whether the goods are getting divided fairly is not the issue.

    Let me put it this way. I'm not just a Downtown kid looking through the Uptown window and imagining all sorts of alleged goodies inside. I'm chair of the music department at Bard, where I teach with Joan Tower and George Tsontakis. We've got the Da Capo Ensemble in residence. Thanks to such connections, I'm on many panels with Uptown composers. I'm a program annotator for two orchestras, both of which play more than their share of new music. I sit around and talk to plenty of Uptown composers, and we marvel at how different our opinions are, what different repertoires we know, what different qualities we look for in a new score. I mention Robert Ashley (greatest opera composer of the late 20th century, but a Downtowner), and one of the most active entrpreneurs in Uptown responds, "I've never heard his music, what's it like?" They admit to me that if a score isn't meticulously notated, they cast it aside as amateurish (Downtowners take a much looser attitude toward notation). How do I know Uptown and Downtown haven't merged? The Uptown musicians keep telling me so. When they start telling me something different, I'll let you know.


    Attempt at an overview
    By Alex Ross
    posted @ 08/04/2004 7:30 am
    What does the future hold? There is nothing more difficult to talk about, and the conversation can easily deteriorate into anxious chatter because no hard evidence exists to back up anyone's assertions. Nonetheless, it's interesting to try. Where will music (this music, classical music) stand twenty years from now? There are strongly mixed signs. On the one hand, as Greg Sandow has been noting on his blog, some mainstream administrators are making apocalyptic noises about the financial health of their institutions. None of us would be surprised, I think, if there were a few spectacular failures, especially in the orchestra realm, and most especially on the East Coast. There are seemingly intractable problems in the way orchestras are structured. Many administrators want to try a host of new approaches in marketing, audience outreach, concert presentation, and so on, but the orchestra unions are extraordinarily reluctant to make any changes. This impasse is a train wreck waiting to happen. (You got a glimpse of it recently at the Philadelphia Orchestra; more to follow as other contracts come up for renewal.) Opera, we're told, is in a much healthier state, but the Metropolitan Opera, for one, doesn't seem like a happy camp these days, and it may be looking down the same double-barreled shotgun of administration-union paralysis. Pamela Rosenberg's forthcoming departure from the San Francisco Opera is depressing: someone came in wanting to take a bold new approach, and ran up against ye olde brick wall.

    The end of several major orchestras and opera houses would not be the end of the world. Kyle Gann has said many times that composers would get along on just fine without orchestras, thanks, orchestras having done so little for composers over the years. The loss would be heavier for audiences, who, since the late nineteenth century, have been trained to look for greatness in a symphonic tuxedo. Some kind of catastrophic break with this chronic overemphasis on the Orchestra might not in the end be a bad thing. But it would be supremely painful. A lot of us city critics might find ourselves going down with the ship. Yet I can't help feeling what will perhaps turn out to be a foolish optimism. I see fresh faces filling orchestras; I hear one brilliant new young singer or pianist or violinist after another; I talk to student composers who seem free of the resentments of their elders. (You’re all still talking within the frame of Milton Babbitt’s “Who Cares If You Listen?” essay, one wrote to me.) The infusion of new attitudes must eventually have a consequence in the audience itself, and when the audience changes everything will change.

    There’s more to this train of thought, but I’ll stop for now. I need to run the Condescension & One-Upmanship checker on the remainder of the post.


    To Kyle
    By Justin Davidson
    posted @ 08/04/2004 7:21 am

    I'll have to think about that. I actually think that ivy-league modernists are probably more non grata at 66th St. now than Niblock et. al. What's the likelihood of Lincoln Center commissioning something from Mario Davidovsky (Columbia, Harvard)? But you're not saying that, with the exception of certain major downtowners, Lincoln Center and Carnegie Hall have presented all the truly important and seminal composers of our time - are you?

    Beata Moon brings up music education or the lack of it - surely one of the defining aspects of musical life today. But I've always wondered whether ignorance causes indifference or the other way around. Do audiences not care about what they hear because they haven't learned about music, or are they not taught music because people don't care?



    READER: Another Composer's Viewpoint
    By Beata Moon
    posted @ 08/04/2004 6:42 am

    As a composer and performer (see Kyle Gann's list of postminimalists), I know that when I compose, I am not trying to follow a musical trend or style, nor am I aiming to create a new one. I want to write music that will speak to all listeners; music that is true and sincere. As artists, we each bring our individual histories, whatever that may be, to our work. Because I was classically-trained  read more


    Downtown untouchables
    By Justin Davidson
    posted @ 08/04/2004 6:39 am
    Of course there are plenty of uptown, crosstown and out-of-town composers that the big institutions won't touch. Most of them, in fact.

    Uptown and downtown have merged
    By Kyle Gann
    posted @ 08/04/2004 6:16 am
    Bulletin: Uptown and downtown have merged. - Davidson

    Starting around 1987 with the advent of the Bang on a Can festival, a new generation of Downtown composers got started in New York, more marketing-savvy and ensemble-savvy than their predecessors, who were able to make themselves more palatable to Uptown institutions. Concomitantly, more than a few thoroughly Uptown-trained composers moved into the Downtown scene as a hipper place to launch their careers from. If the making of lists hadn't been discouraged, I could make a long list (starting with Phill Niblock, Beth Anderson, and Joshua Fried) of important Downtown composers that to this day no Uptown organization would touch with a ten-foot baton. I say none of this to complain: I've done very well by the classical establishment. But if you live your whole life Downtown, you realize that the oft-heralded merger between Uptown and Down is partly realized strategy, partly PR facade.


    Nothing to Do with Big Ideas

    By Kyle Gann
    posted @ 08/04/2004 5:57 am
    I had a different reaction to Wynne Delacoma’s post about angry audiences than critic Marc Geelhoed did.

    Years ago my son had a classmate in school who was an exchange student from Graz, Austria. I met his parents, who were not musicians, and mentioned that there was an important contemporary music festival there. They replied, “Oh yes, we go every year.” I said, with mild surprise, “Oh, so you like that kind of music.” They replied, “Oh no, the music’s always terrible.”

    They hated the complex postserialist music (this was at least 12 years ago) played at the Graz festival. But they went every year.

    I wish American musical institutions could nurture this kind of attitude in their audiences. Marc’s right that the angry reaction is a sign of passionate involvement, but I think Wynne’s righter that more people ought to have the maturity to be able to dislike something without getting angry and cancelling their subscriptions. And I suspect that part of the reason they don’t was that for too many years we denied the audience the right to dislike the music. We experts took the position that, “Well, you have to listen to a lot of this music, and it’s very complex, and you have to train yourself to listen to it, so just trust us, it’s great music, and it’ll be good for you.” We should have empowered the audience members to like and dislike whatever they wanted, and treated disliking a piece of music as a totally normal experience. You don’t like every painting in an exhibition, and you don’t like every piece on a concert. Personally, I get a lot of interesting insights from hearing music I don’t like. And I think what was different about the parents from Graz was that no one had ever taken from them their confidence that they were perfectly competent to decide what was a good piece and what wasn’t. They’d show up every year, listen to the latest Helmut Lachenmann circumlocutions, say to each other “That was crap,” and no one ever lectured them, “No, you just don’t understand it.” Their unshakeable confidence in their own amateur musical judgment impressed me as much as their willingness to go back, and I felt that one caused the other.

    On an unrelated topic, I’ll add that composer-readers Dennis Bathory-Kitsz and Corey Dargel made excellent points about the lack of distribution for, and investment in, types of new music that audiences could easily love if they could only get a chance to hear them. We’re fools if we discuss the problems of new music without taking into account the massive, if often invisible, corporate filters that keep the money-making status quo inviolate.


    READER: Insulted Concert-goers
    By Marc Geelhoed
    posted @ 08/04/2004 12:40 am
    To Wynne Delacoma's mention of concert-goers who are upset when they hear a new piece and don't like it, I say, "That's great!" It means they're involved, that they care, that they wanted to have an experience they could remember. And remember positively, moreover. If it happened to be a piece that I or another critic thought was actually very good or good but not up to the composer's other works, that's OK, too. I'll take a passionate insult over an indifferent shrug any day...  read more

Tuesday, August 3
    Frustration and obscurity
    By Justin Davidson
    posted @ 08/03/2004 8:54 pm

    It seems to me that the sniping is a sign of frustration at how difficult it is to deal with the topic that Doug set for us. I wrote a column today about this blog and what struck me was how much of the discussion has been taken up by obsessive list making. One person offers Duckworth, another counters with Auerbach a third pipes up with Coates. I'm glad for all the tips, and I'm compiling a listening list of my own, but by scouring the corners of the Kitchen and exploring the Seattle avant-garde for ever more names, we may be missing the obvious. We're behaving like Albanians in a suburban mega-mall: Overwhelmed by choice and variety, we grab at what looks cool. Rather than select, we accumulate: We've developed the catalogue as critique.

    I suspect, though, that despite this collective disorientation, most of us might agree that John Adams is one of the two or three most important, prolific and germane composers in the United States. His techniques are consistent, his trajectory clear, his style in constant evolution, his mastery unquestionable and he's certainly grappling with the issues of our time (Klinghoffer, anybody?). Can't we devote more than a passing reference to him? Looking for the current big thing, or the next one, without dealing with Adams seems perverse.

    Few critics discover new talents. We do not, by and large, conduct the equivalent of artists' studio visits. Mostly we rely on presenters and performers to sift through the mountains of novelty and put their own reputations at the service of an unknown composer's. Often those people do a very good job. By the time a composer's work is being performed at Carnegie Hall or at Disney Hall, that person has likely put in some time in lofts and basements. Bulletin: Uptown and downtown have merged. It was John Rockwell, after all, who set the tone for Lincoln Center Festival, which has devoted multi-part tributes to Steve Reich, Meredith Monk, Ornette Coleman and Elvis Costello. Carnegie Hall recently commissioned pieces from Lisa Bielawa and Michael Gordon.

    So we might do well - here and in the "Music Since 1990" database that Doug set up - to wonder whether the best place to search for the zeitgeist is in the margins of an already marginal art.


    READER: Critical Civility
    By AC Douglas
    posted @ 08/03/2004 7:16 pm

    Scott Cantrell wrote: "I'm apparently not alone in feeling that too much of this has degenerated into one-upsmanship and looking down noses. Let's have disagreement, fine, but the condescending tone of at least one contributor hardly illuminates anything except--well, we won't go there. No wonder readers don't like critics." And John Rockwell commented: "And I definitely agree with Scott's latest posting, about civility."

    Interesting. That fraying of the edges of civility among the professionals here seemed to me a most welcome sign of critical good health, and the very thing that made this symposium's exchanges (among the professionals) so encouraging... read more


    READER: apologies
    By John Shaw
    posted @ 08/03/2004 7:15 pm
    I agree with Scott Cantrell too, and apologize for my sharing my misplaced, presumptuous anger about Mr. Rockwell’s presentation in Seattle a couple months ago. His graciousness in response humbles me. If the cultural ground has shifted – probably not 180 degrees, true – Mr. Rockwell would probably not be remiss in thinking his work had something to do with that shift. Which seemed to be at least part of his goal in the book.

    We’re all here because we love music. As Ms. Delacoma has pointed out in her post about listener anger towards Music-One-Dislikes, music goes deep into people’s hearts and souls. It’s hot stuff. I, for one, need to make my peace with the truth that different people deal with it differently.

    READER: Mr. Context
    By Arthur J. Sabatini
    posted @ 08/03/2004 7:14 pm
    Well, admittedly, John Rockwell, I do not read everything you write, so I will defer to other commentators. But, while you might think you are Mr. Context, your reviews, not feature writing, too often become strongly evaluative. I think Gann & Ross are more artist oriented in their writing. That is not a problem, however, unless your intent is to be more historical than judgemental, etc. In any case, I still do not see the basis for stating that Gann (or anyone of the principle writers involved in this discussion) do not hear enough or write about a breadth of music.

    Shifting Ground
    By John Rockwell
    posted @ 08/03/2004 3:39 pm

    I agree with much of what John Shaw writes about how the ground has shifted since "All American Music" came out 21 years ago. Not sure it's shifted QUITE 180 degrees, but the point is certainly well taken. Sorry he (you) thought I was coasting in Seattle. For the record, I had prepared, but I've found that reading from notes makes for a more spontaneous talk than reading from a prepared text.

    And I definitely agree with Scott's latest posting, about civility.  


    Let's cool it
    By Scott Cantrell
    posted @ 08/03/2004 3:06 pm

    I'm apparently not alone in feeling that too much of this has degenerated into one-upsmanship and looking down noses. Let's have disagreement, fine, but the condescending tone of at least one contributor hardly illuminates anything except--well, we won't go there. No wonder readers don't like critics.

    I wonder if Susan McClary wouldn't dub our whole "next big idea" a hopelessly patriarchal concept. I'm not prepared to follow her ideas all the way, but she's onto something important.

    Raising gender and sexuality issues in music isn't next big idea, but it's not yet exhausted.


    READER: All-American Music
    By John Shaw
    posted @ 08/03/2004 2:45 pm

    John Rockwell’s book meant something to me when I read it 20 years ago, as a music-poetry-theater obsessed college student for whom high-low distinctions had never existed, growing up in a bourgeois family where my mom and my grandma were equally enthralled by the classical music and the show tunes they played on piano.  I read about Ives and Varese in books on my parents’ shelf, took piano lessons, played punk rock, loved Ornette Coleman & Ellington & N. Young & L. Anderson & Art Ensemble & John Cage & Nancarrow & Mozart & J. Strauss & Sousa, and all of this was normal to my family and my friends (well, few friends dug Sousa or Strauss); Rockwell’s book confirmed my experience.  I tried to re-read it a few years ago & just couldn’t get into it.   read more


    READER: "Big Ideas" - Which Direction?
    By Steve Layton
    posted @ 08/03/2004 2:32 pm

    Random aesthetic questions (wrapping a few assumptions) that I've been turning over ever since reading Leonard B. Meyers' "Music, The Arts and Ideas" many years ago: Which metaphorical direction do ideas have to be in to become "big"? "Up"? "Out"? Against"? We can call anything a work of art; what kind of attribute are we imbuing it with, that a moment before the same object wasn't given? read more


    READER: Seeking Multiple Judgments
    By Garth Trinkl
    posted @ 08/03/2004 2:30 pm
    I must admit to being irked by Kyle Gann's comment about many American music critics limiting their interests to "the 40 guys [sic] who get orchestra commissions".  I hardly believe this to be true. Is it?  And what is wrong with Lou Harrison, Philip Glass, Steve Reich, John Adams, Ingram Marshall,  Gloria Coates, Tan Dun, Anne LeBaron, Wynton Marsalis, Susan Botti, and many other American musical creators receiving major orchestral commissions following long years on avant-guard new music circuits [or jazz circuits]?  read more

    Metrocard
    By John Rockwell
    posted @ 08/03/2004 2:24 pm
    Arthur Sabatini: Me, concentrating too much on individual pieces at the expense of context? Me, Mr. Context, Mr. Cultural Historian? And actually, whether traveling uptown or downtown, I take cabs more than subways. My vast Times salary, you know, plus the difficulty of negotiating myself into the dark pits of the subway with my walking stick.

    To Arthur Sabatini
    By Alex Ross
    posted @ 08/03/2004 1:39 pm
    Arthur Sabatini writes: "I would suggest Rockwell grab a Metro Card to visit more composers at work, pick up his walking stick, and use his expense account to get on the road and not just in the concert hall." Actually, Rockwell needs the Metrocard to get to Lincoln Center, not Soho and Tribeca. Read his book "All American Music" if you want to find out a little more about what he's done and heard over the years. For myself, I don't laud a composer such as Thomas Adčs because Lincoln Center tells me to. When I first wrote about him in 1995, he was unknown in this country, and I'm not going to stop writing about him just because he has achieved a measure of fame. Indeed, the connection that he and Adams and Golijov and some other major talents have somehow achieved with broad audiences is to my bourgeois, uptown, carnation-wearing, walking-stick-toting taste kind of a big deal in itself.

    Posting III. Music as personal insult
    By Wynne Delacoma
    posted @ 08/03/2004 12:33 pm
    I have to weigh in on the confounding and fascinating question that Greg and others have raised about music of the 50’s--why “a lot of the most notable, new and above all prestigious music of that time appeared to be largely about itself...And why did people back then and..now accept this development as something valid, important, good or even reasonable?’’ To me, that question always prompts another that is equally confounding. Why do so many audience members, especially at symphony programs, become so enraged by a piece of new music they don’t like? Disapproval would be one thing; we are all entitled to our opinions. But what I often encounter is a sense of boiling anger, of having been duped, of having had irretrievable hours stolen from their lives.They walk out of the concert hall ready to kill. It baffles me because these same concertgoers obviously are drawn to classical music in general. They are sufficiently interested to buy a ticket and come to the concert hall. (It’s been so long since going to the symphony was required for high social status, at least in Chicago, that I’m discounting entirely the possibility that such listeners are mere status-seekers.) Often they are also the ones who regularly attend theater and dance concerts.They trot off to a new play or a program of new choreography knowing full well that they might not like what they see. They expect to see new things, and they don’t mind taking a risk. When they walk into the concert hall, however, an encounter with work they don’t like becomes a personal insult. Why is that? I’m not playing blame the audience here. I’m just wondering what it is about the classical music world--from symphony hall architects to composers, performers and, yes indeed, us critics--that has led to such profound distrust of the new in a segment of the audience. Probably the key to answering that question lies in the answer to Greg’s original question. Perhaps music that is primarily about itself, without the overarching spiritual framework, for example, that suffuses Bach’s work, eventually becomes as tiresome as a self-absorbed dinner guest. Why it became so dominant, as Greg point out--that is the question. P.S. Kyle, thanks for clarifying the composer-bashing point.

    READER: John Rockwell on Gann and Ross, and Greg, too
    By Arthur J. Sabatini
    posted @ 08/03/2004 10:10 am

    When John Rockwell gripes that Kyle Gann has devoted his career to certain composers and suggests that he pick up on the composers Alex Ross mentions, he indirectly brings up a point regarding musical worlds and critical positions that needs further discussion. From my reading over decades, I find Gann to have a far more thorough social and historist sense of contemporary composer's careers and the specific trajectories of their music than John Rockwell... read more


    I Go Where the Money Rolls
    By Kyle Gann
    posted @ 08/03/2004 9:20 am
    [T]here is SO MUCH MORE new music out there than just the composers to whom you have devoted your critical career. You're such a smart guy, so why not spread your wings? - Rockwell

    So, why do I limit myself to merely the 800 or 900 composers who make art rock, minimalism, sampling collages, just-intonation music, expanded equal-temperament music, plunderphonics, postminimalism, interactive computer music, classical/jazz fusions, wall-of-sound music, performance art, new musical instruments, MAX/MSP music, free improvisation, sound installations, sound sculpture, totalism, ambient music, mechanical instrument music, conceptual music, and process music? Why not be like other critics and limit myself to the 40 guys who get orchestra commissions? I dunno.... convenience, I guess.


    To Justin: Good Idea
    By Douglas McLennan
    posted @ 08/03/2004 7:44 am
    I think your idea of a kind of list of ideas/movements is a good one. It seems there's a call here for a bit more specificity so at least we've got something concrete to thrash over. Today I'll make a database for such a section as you describe and people can begin filling it if they choose...

    The Weimar Identity
    By Alex Ross
    posted @ 08/03/2004 7:39 am

    Quoth Rockwell: "But [ideas] are important, from ideas about how a particular piece should work to the place of one's work in the larger spectrum of new music to politics and science and philosophy and religion. Sticking to indivdual composers and their works is of course vital, too. But not in an intellectual void, as Alex knows full well." Point taken. I don't mean to act the Pure Fool here. It's just that insisting on the individuality of compositional voices is pretty close to the core of my philosophy as a critic, and is in itself an idea worth mentioning.

    A new topic possibly worth touching on: Why exactly did 20th-century music seem to suffer in excess from dogmas and orthodoxies, polemicizing and politiciking? After all, all this same cogitation went on in other art forms. Clement Greenberg has been mentioned — a scary idea-bully if ever there was one. Yet abstract expressionism and other movements he championed had a powerful public impact, and the personality of each painter trumped the ideas attached. What went wrong in music? If, indeed, something went wrong — perhaps there are old-school modernists out there who wish to respond to the routine modernist-bashing that's gone on in my posts and others. My answer would have something to do with music's perennial envy of other forms — its self-image of being backward and parochial and slow. Wagner's writings rage eloquently on this topic. Yet musical history suggests that "big ideas" must arrive in the wake of, rather than in advance of, long-developing technical ideas, such as, say the interplay of monody and dissonance that led Monteverdi to proclaim the "seconda prattica." In the 20th century, composers started brainstorming big ideas without first working them out in practice. The result was an overebullient marketplace, to take a phrase from Alan Greenspan, tied to products no one really wanted or needed. That's what we're all wary of now.

    When I look at music today, I think back to Berlin in the twenties — a period that uncannily resembles the one we're in now, with so many composers talking about breaking away from academic practice and engaging with pop music, new technological media, wider social trends. When I read Kyle's definitions of postminimalism — “the same weight and density as Middle Baroque music, like Corelli, but with non-functional harmony … the structural basis is rhythm, not harmony, …. tonal, mostly consonant (or at least never tensely dissonant), and usually based on a steady pulse)” — I immediately thought to myself, Hindemith! Although Kyle himself reminds me more of Hanns Eisler. (A compliment in my book.) The Weimar composers were grappling with the same intractable problem that consumes composers now — how do we operate in a rapid-fire capitalist-democratic marketplace that lusts for the hotness of pop? Do we try to throw ourselves into the thick of the melee, or do we bow out of it and cultivate our own garden? I'm all for the first possibility, but I'm aware of its dangers. Schoenberg once scowled that all these populists would end up speaking to a mass public consisting of each other, and, ya know, he was kinda right. Fianlly, needless to say, I hope to God this Weimar Republic analogy doesn't track too closely.


    READER: Glad to be that somebody
    By David Carter
    posted @ 08/03/2004 7:19 am

    "The musical equivalent would have been a composer who, in a white heat of creation, spewed out music -- but writing it down, not improvising it in concert. (Of course, somebody's sure to point out some composer who did just this." - Greg Sandow

    I'd like to be that somebody - Kaikhosru Shapurji Sorabji (1892 - 1988) an enormously prolific composer, who completed more than one hundred works between 1915 and 1984.  read more


    READER: Big Idea? Not
    By Nicholas Kenyon
    posted @ 08/03/2004 7:18 am

    Whether or not I qualify (as an ex-music critic) to contribute to this fascinating discussion, let me just make one comment: it is absolutely inconceivable that there could or should any longer be a ‘big idea’ or a prevailing musical mainstream. A century of recording and broadcasting, increasingly making all musics available to all, has completely changed our concept of musical tradition and influence in ways it is impossible to underestimate.

    It is now generations since there has been a single idea or mainstream for any composer to react to or develop or fight against. Creative decisions today take place in an utterly different context from those in the past.


    For Kyle, Doug and Alex
    By John Rockwell
    posted @ 08/03/2004 7:11 am

    Kyle -- I know some of your composers, often from decades past, and I'll dip into your links with pleasure (sounds vaguely icky, that). My gripe, and this is the last time I'll say it, is that there is SO MUCH MORE new music out there than just the composers to whom you have devoted your critical career. You're such a smart guy, so why not spread your wings? Starting with some of the composers Alex mentions (not that your're unfamiliar with those works, but why not make them part of your mission, too?), and going on to all the wider worlds of music spinning away out there in the sonic universe?

    Doug and Alex -- I'm with you, Doug, on big ideas; music, especially for anyone who uses words to embrace it, is a constant dialogue between sound and thought, and not just thought about sound. Ideas don't dictate; they reflect and annoy and inspire. But they're important, from ideas about how a particular piece should work to the place of one's work in the larger spectrum of new music to politics and science and philosophy and religion. Sticking to indivdual composers and their works is of course vital, too. But not in an intellectual void, as Alex knows full well; he eptiomizes that kind of context in everything he writes. We need a constant grounding of intellectual conceits into the hard reality of actual compositions. But we need ideas to lift us out of sonic myopia.


    Ideology and Idea
    By Justin Davidson
    posted @ 08/03/2004 6:33 am

    Thanks, Doug, for prodding the conversation back into gear. I have no fear of ideas, big or small, so long as they don't turn into orthodoxies - so long, that is, as we are able to recognize the variety within them. In the general retreat from modernism, we have done a lot of good music a great disservice by answering one orthodoxy with another. Modernism was (and is) not monolithic, and rejecting it as a bad idea makes no more sense than it did to insist that music needed to conform stylistically to be "relevant." In other words, there was an orthodoxy, but also many composers working in the margins. 

    If critics are unwilling to wave the flag for a big idea it's partly because we still remember those distortions. Who wants to be remembered as the critic who ignored what was really going on because he (or she) was in thrall to a particular school? Like Alex, I want to be able to keep my ears alert to a wide variety of styles and respond to great music wherever it may come from. (And I'm delighted to add a couple of items to my must-hear list.)

    Having said that, Doug, you're quite right that we needn't worry about being tyrannized by ideas, only by ideologies. Ideas can coexist, ideologies can't. So I would hope that by the end of the week we could get some clarity without being reductive. That's why I made my somewhat pedantic proposal yesterday, in the hope that we could at least begin to itemize some of the ideas that are in circulation and connect them to actual composers.

    Greg: I take your point that formalism was not unique to modernism or music (and that not all composers were modernists), though I think the level of technical self absorption during the 50s was extraordinarily high. Bach's devices were all tied to a big extra-musical idea: glorifying God. Skipping ahead: Clement Greenberg was a Marxist, and for him paint on canvas was part of an explicitly political agenda. The abstract expressionists themselves were brimming with big ideas about spirituality, Jung, myth and the unconscious. Certainly for Pollock, technique was a means for highly personalized self expression.

    You're quite right to point out that in the 50s, the big formalist idea was countered by the big anti-formalist idea of spontaneity. Which gets me back to what I was saying earlier: As critics we have to be able to hold opposites and contradictions in our heads at the same time. As to why formalism took hold in music so much more strongly than in other arts, I've always thought it was partly a defense mechanism. In the U.S., anyway, composers needed a university berth and had to give music some academic respectability, so they treated it as a field of research, endowing it with a level of technical intricacy that would make its secrets unavailable to non-specialists. Provosts and university presidents, accustomed to dealing with people whose fields they had no clear understanding of, were happy to accord composers the same esoteric respect. It's more complicated than that, of course, but I don't want to stray too far away from the present.

    I won't argue with you about Philip Glass - that's an old prejudice of mine. Likewise with L'avventura.


Monday, August 2
    READER: Big Ideas... Who Needs Them?
    By James Weaver
    posted @ 08/02/2004 11:29 pm

    While my background is in the visual arts, I am an accomplished guitarist. As Wynne Delacoma accurately points out, none of us are ever going to become capable of predicting the "next big" anything. Worse yet, while John Cage's incorporating Zen Buddhist practices to composition and performance may still have a strong potential, his 1962 "Silent piece 0' 0" personifies Delacoma's statement:"...schools of thought that stifle creativity rather than stimulate it." Whenever mediocre thought and subsequent performance are elevated to the level of being news worthy based on timing rather than content, a glaring problem exists.  read more


    The Idea of No Idea
    By Alex Ross
    posted @ 08/02/2004 11:28 pm

    Thanks to Douglas McLennan for the clarifying challenge. The problem I’m having here is that I'm interested in personalities first, ideas second. The living composers who excite me most are those who go against the grain of whatever language or languages they’ve chosen to adopt, asserting an unmistakable musical self. As we’ve all said, twentieth-century music was tyrannized and traumatized by artistic dogmas. The apparent reluctance of some of us here to delineate “big ideas” in billboard-sized lettering does not by any means signify a lack of enthusiasm for contemporary music. Speaking for myself, I do my utmost to honor the individuality of the composer in question, without resort to "isms." When I said before that pop music seemed to be the scene of “big, scene-setting ideas,” I was not necessarily paying that vast, ill-defined genre a compliment. As I observed in an article back in February, jazz, rock, and even hip-hop seem to have cycled with ever-greater speed through stages of classicism, romanticism, modernism, avant-gardism, and neoclassicism. Let them ride the old mystery train as long as they wish. Composers, it seems to me, have reached the station at the end of the line. They are now setting off on foot, to borrow a beautiful image from Alfred Schnittke. Or, to quote William Billings, “every man his own Carver.”

    This is, in fact, a great, brilliant era in music. Every year in the past decade has come at least one work that’s completely rocked my world — Magnus Lindberg’s “Aura,” with its chaos-theory recollection of Sibelius; John Moran’s “Everyday Newt Burman,” gripping surreal theater generated by tape loops and sound collage; Thomas Adčs’ “Asyla,” with its meticulous and galvanic and somehow inwardly skeptical evocation of a sweaty techno club; Osvaldo Golijov’s St. Mark Passion, blending the solitude of composition with the collective ritual of the Latin-American street; Helmut Oehring’s “Self-Liberator,” a shrieking dark Germanic take on funk and hip-hop production; Lou Harrison’s “Rhymes with Silver,” a work too pure of heart to be summed up in a phrase; John Adams’ “Naďve and Sentimental Music,” the great American symphony of our time; Steve Reich’s “Three Tales,” a reinvention of opera as a total theater of technology that simultaneously returns music to its origins in speech; and, most recently, Lera Auerbach’s 24 Preludes for Violin and Piano, in which a young composer glides over the 20th century without suffering the anguish of nostalgia. There are many ideas in rapid circulation here: ideas about technology and electronics and sampling and pop and folk and alternative tunings and non-Western traditions and the 20th-century past. But in each case the composer’s ability to master the material is the biggest idea of all.


    Way Beyond Crossover
    By Kyle MacMillan
    posted @ 08/02/2004 8:56 pm

    I’ve been on the road and have come back to the office to discover a tidal wave of entries in the blog. And I must confess that it’s all a bit overwhelming. I’m not quite sure where to start. But I thought I would just share some initial notions that perhaps relate at least indirectly to what has already been written.

    It seems to me that the single biggest development of the last couple of decades is the ability for anyone to get a CD (or simply download it) of virtually any kind of music that has been composed or performed anywhere in the world in the last 1,000 years or more. Compare this virtually limitless musical availability to the enormously more finite musical influences on even such recent composers as Igor Stravinsky or Aaron Copland. It seems nearly impossible to overstate the potential ramifications. Beyond merely borrowing from jazz or blues as George Gershwin did, a composer in 2004 with very little effort can reach back to the Renaissance for a chant, grab a native rhythm from New Guinea and mix them with a 19th century romantic harmonic structure or whatever. The ramifications are enormous, and composers have only begun to exploit them.

    Such blurring of historical, geographic and stylistic boundaries goes way beyond what has typically been known as “crossover” or “cross-pollination.” It is musical composition with virtually no limitations. That to me is a “big idea.” Now, of course, this notion both unites and disunites simultaneously. On one hand, this notion of borderless music composition is becoming widespread.  Indeed, it is unstoppable at this point. Even if a composer does not engage in it consciously, a composer cannot help but be affected by the ever-widening variety of music he or she encounters inevitably on a daily basis. Such blurring can be heard everywhere from John Corigliano to popular music to the film scores of Howard Shore to the burgeoning milieu of world music. But by its very nature, such an approach is disuniting. Instead of creating one sound or style, it constantly seeks  new syntheses of sounds. Unity and disunity all at once.


    Improvisation -- for Tom
    By Greg Sandow
    posted @ 08/02/2004 8:38 pm

    Tom,

    I didn't mean that classical music should have incorporated improvisation, in the way that jazz does. (Although it's done that since the '50s, but that's another story.) Maybe I should have used another word. I was thinking of Jackson Pollock and Jack Kerouac, who sort of spewed out their work. Nothing like that happened in mainstream classical music, or at least not involving anyone as famous as Pollock or Kerouac. The musical equivalent would have been a composer who, in a white heat of creation, spewed out music -- but writing it down, not improvising it in concert.

    (Of course, somebody's sure to point out some composer who did just this. Might be the exception that proves the rule -- a minor or minorish figure, or at any rate someone the music world regarded as marginal, and who didn't get the vast attention Pollock and Kerouac did. Or maybe I'm wrong about this…)


    READER: To Greg, Justin: Hermetic Music
    By Tom Hamilton
    posted @ 08/02/2004 7:32 pm

    Greg: I've read your 3rd point, where you ask why improvisation, as manifest in the 1950s and likened to the procedures of Pollock and Kerouac, seemed to be rejected by the musical mainstream, in favor of a kind of musical formalism. The idea that improvisation can be handily introduced into classical concert music has been largely built on a misunderstanding of the nature of both of those great processes. read more


    No Apocalpse Now
    By Douglas McLennan
    posted @ 08/02/2004 6:06 pm

    I’m struck by how difficult it has been to get our hands around the concept of a “Big Idea.” Indeed, Kyle immediately re-posed the question as “why are there no big ideas in music” and voiced objection. Others, unable to define a large enough idea, seem willing to cede the debate to popular music, where presumably fresher(!?) explorations might be underway. Then there is a wide vein of hostility towards the “Big Idea” construction altogether, a feeling, perhaps, that christening something as such sets up a tyranny of orthodoxy that should be resisted.  

     

    And yet – I’d like to suggest that if this question were posed to those in the technology sector, it wouldn’t occur to them to think of the Big Idea as a tyranny. Instead they’d be scrambling to try to divine what the Next Big Thing is so they could get in on it. If the question were posed to the medical community, they’d be all over it trying to articulate what they think is the next paradigm that would inform their thinking. I think you’d get similar reactions to this challenge in education or manufacturing or even government.

     

    No one would seriously suggest in any of these fields that there might not be any more Big Ideas to grab the imagination. And I suspect that few would find that the “tyranny” of a Big Idea is a negative that outweighs the good that comes from focusing collective energy on exploring it. Indeed, in many of these endeavors, progress is made only because of the critical mass of attention accumulated around it.

     

    Aha – progress. Isn’t that a problematic concept in our discussion? The notion of “progress” in music is a discredited one. Yet, progress doesn’t have to mean “better”. It just means that the conversation of ideas has moved on. If it hadn’t, then we’d still have composers busily spinning out Haydn symphonies (I understand someone is, by the way – and good ones, I’m told). But the fact you can write a Haydn symphony long after the fact seems more like a craft than a piece of art, doesn’t it?

     

    The premise behind the original question wasn’t that there weren’t any Big Ideas now. The premise came out of a sense that everywhere the culture is fragmenting, everywhere creative people are struggling to come to terms with traditional cultural structures that are breaking down. That culture is moving from the Model-T mass production model to a bespoke culture-on-demand.

     

    Mass culture is seeing its audience melt away. Popular music (as defined since mid-20th Century) almost doesn’t exist anymore. TV and radio and newspapers are struggling for attention, and soon, pop culture references that have been in the era of mass media a shorthand for common shared experience will be indecipherable to most. The failure to find an idea that energizes the field is not unique to classical music. It cuts across all the arts.

     

    This isn’t an apocalyptic vision. I am gratified that I can easily get access to recordings of a Machaut mass, a Roy Harris piano quartet, or that I can sample liberally off Kyle’s listening list whenever I want. That I can hear 27 different versions of a Brandenburg Concerto – from the purity of a Harnoncourt or Koopman to the battleship of a von Karajan. In the so-called “Golden Age” it was difficult, if not impossible to get such variety. I like that the idea of a monolithic mass culture is dying. Music isn’t going to die. Orchestras aren’t going to die. The institutions by which we experience them now may die or evolve, but the art itself isn’t going away.

     

    And yet – I wonder if one of our big problems here is that there is so little public discourse around the ideas of music. How can there be big ideas if the ideas there are aren’t fought over? I love Kyle’s list, and he has made a career of advocating for a particular view. But who’s out there arguing with him (or seconding him, for that matter)? It can’t be a conversation of one. I’m not talking about having to come up with consensus (I discussed this in an article for Newsweek last year), but surely the failure of voices to engage in debate sends a signal that there isn’t enough worth debating? (a view, by the way, with which I strongly disagree).


    READER: A Problem of Marketing
    By Corey Dargel
    posted @ 08/02/2004 5:59 pm
    Compared to the NYC new-music scene, the NYC independent (pop) music scene consistently draws a wider demographic and larger pool of listeners to hear its emerging artists. The venues and the artists themselves take a more proactive role in marketing emerging composers, songwriters, and musicians, so the interesting things that are happening in the pop music world are heard about and talked about a lot (and by a lot of different people)... read more

    READER: Of Sheep Heads and Music
    By P. Bailey
    posted @ 08/02/2004 5:56 pm
    When I put on concerts, one of the main obstructions to bringing in an audience is marketing. The amount of money spent to promote the LA Phil and related organizations gives many people a sense that it is the "thing" to do. The practicality of putting on a concert in an alternative venue (church, art gallery, museum) can limit the exposure and coverage of the event...  read more

    READER: Re Kyle's Listening Examples...
    By Steve Layton
    posted @ 08/02/2004 9:53 am
    Yes, that's helpful, and a nice list (though not terribly "new" to anyone paying fair attention over the last couple decades). For a really broad slice of the current spectrum, including much fine work by people that don't even begin to approach the fringes of the "official radar", I'd like to recommend two sites... read more

    READER: Marketing anyone?
    By Dennis Bathory-Kitsz
    posted @ 08/02/2004 9:35 am

    Is it too much to expect that nearly the entire significance-sickness in nonpop has to do with the dearth of effective investment and imaginative marketing -- as well as, to some extent, the noose of intellectual property laws that strangles compositions that might use popular work as source material?... read more




    Listening Examples Provided

    By Kyle Gann
    posted @ 08/02/2004 7:45 am
    Well, I had a little proposal of my own that I worked up last night. I hate having this abstract, general discussion about “today’s composers” when no one seems to know the composers I’m talking about. So I’ve put up a temporary New-Music Listening Page with examples of music by 14 composers. You may like some of it, you may not, but if you get the urge to claim that “today’s composers” are out of touch with popular music, don’t write music with any relevance to social issues, don’t use sampling, don’t capture the spirit of our time, etc., you might want to listen to these before saying so. I’d also consider it real decent of you if you would refrain from dissing the music before listening to it through a plausible sound system.

    These few examples aren’t sufficient, of course, to prove the existence of any Big Ideas out there. But I have several thousand other CDs of music by composers born after 1940 that would make the point.

    To John: Sorry, I get your point about the ages. The postminimalists I listed were mostly over 50, but the totalists I subsequently talked about were born between 1949 and 1961, most of them just about my age or slightly younger. Even postminimalism, though, didn’t take off as a movement until 1980 or just after. Whatever “’70s composers” are (and I’ve used the term), I can’t think of these as them.

    As for how they relate to other music: The postminimalists tend to be rather omniverous. Janice Giteck borrows from many world traditions, notably Jewish and Indonesian. Bill Duckworth’s music borrows from bluegrass, early rock ‘n’ roll keyboard, Erik Satie, Messiaen, Gregorian chant. Daniel Lentz, underneath his synthesizers and feel-good California melodies, is remarkably indebted to Renaissance counterpoint. I think of postminimalism as having about the same weight and density as Middle Baroque music, like Corelli, but with non-functional harmony. The essence of the style is that the structural basis is rhythm, not harmony, following Cage's ideas about time and the influence of his music of the 1940s. Harmony has been reduced to a coloristic role.

    The totalists tend to be more pop-music-oriented, frequently citing Led Zeppelin as an influence. In fact, the critical principle often cited in this conversation that “pop music is where the energy is” is so often invoked by composers of my own generation that it’s hardly cricket to use it against them. This is a more cantankerous and eclectic movement, harder to generalize about, but its signature is a gear-shifting feel of switching back and forth among different tempos.

    But perhaps the listening examples, which include postminimalists, totalists, and none-of-the-abovists, will make the point better than more words could.


    proposal
    By Justin Davidson
    posted @ 08/02/2004 4:35 am

    A few years ago, in a stab at making some sense for readers of the swarm of composers and styles in contemporary music, I wrote a series on various recent trends: American composers born in Asia; composers whose borrowed heavily from rock and pop; improviser-composers, etc. The series was far from comprehensive. 

    What if, collectively, we tried to come up with topics for an imaginary 10-part series? Or, alternatively, a syllabus for an imaginary course: "[Classical?] Music since 1990." We could group composers into a series of themes (also known as Big Ideas) obviously there would be overlap, and some of the divisions would be fairly arbitrary, but if we think of it as organizing material for readers or students - a real-life activity that many of us actually have to do - it might be useful. I'd suggest a couple of ground rules: Since we're interested in recent developments, composers should be under 50 or else have participated in a trend that has materialized within the last 15 years.

    Perhaps when we have enough responses, Doug could assemble them into a master list, reconciling redundancies. I'd suggest the following format:

    Header [Post-neo-anti-non-modernism]

    Brief description: [A radical rejection of all previous rejections of historicism, characterized by pounding silences and the frequent combination of tubas and lutes.]

    List of 5-6 composers, with birth date, nationality and one or two significant pieces: [Englebert Tubthumper, b. 1967, South Africa. "The End of Everything," electronic environment]

    If this feels to formal and professorial, feel free to ignore it, but I have a feeling it might clarify some ideas.

     


Sunday, August 1
    READER: Follow the Architecture
    By Garth Trinkl
    posted @ 08/01/2004 2:30 pm
    Where do  new musical ideas come from?...  I remember attending a wonderful temporary exhibition, about eight years ago, at the old San Francisco De Young Art Museum, in Golden Gate Park, which featured old and rare Anatolian and Persian kilims from the private collection of a visionary Berkeley-based architect/architectural theorist.  I recall that... read more

    READER: How Do Ideas Get Big?
    By Arthur J. Sabatini
    posted @ 08/01/2004 2:28 pm

    My apologies if these points have been discussed. If so, just refer back to the letters... Here are several questions: I think that among of the implicit questions "high art" poses to popular, even folk cultural art forms, musical and otherwise, with regard to Big Ideas, are: - What does it take, formally, to address a Big Idea?... read more


    Reply to Kyle, and a plea
    By John Rockwell
    posted @ 08/01/2004 1:34 pm

    Kyle, in an earlier response to a question of mine, you said one third of your composers were under 50. With furrowed brow, I thus calculate that two thirds of them are over 50 (or, I suppose, 50 on the nose). This limits the group as representative of much of anything beyond itself, for all the much-touted variety within the group.

    I honor and respect your work, Kyle. I believe you when you tell us that many of your composers make good music. I just wish you would broaden your scope and discuss, if not all music, then at least how your chosen group relates aesthetically to the rest of music. Or is your mandate from the Village Voice to stick to the "experimental" scene, whatever that means any more?

    What's been interesting to me about this whole conversation, apart from a myriad specific points, is the fault lines it's opened up among the critics (mostly Sandow, Ross and me vs. the rest). The problem, I think, is the restriction of this conversation to critics of classical music.

    What does that term mean any more? Of course, it does mean something, but often that something is unthinking and self-limiting. Everyone who's smart pays homage to the past and to technique of some kind, often the European art-music tradition. Everyone listens to other musics and pays attention to them, however natural it is at the outset of a career to work within a sharp focus, invented or received.

    Forget adding more classical composers to this blog, though it would be nice to hear more from them. Can't we get beyond the old categories and make this a discussion among critics of music, in all its diversity and variety? Not that jazz and rock and world-music critics are all so high-mindedly ecumenical; a lot of them are narrower than the classical critics here. But at least bringing them in would make for a conversation that in itself covered the totality of music.

    I know, the hiring policies/habits of newspapers and magazines reinforce the old divisions, along with categories on the radio and in record stores and online. But the old divisions are not what real music is about these days. So what we have here are a bunch of blind (deaf) people groping one part of the elephant and squabbling over whether the parts of that one part represent the whole beast.


    READER: The Next Big Idea
    By John Heins
    posted @ 08/01/2004 1:11 pm

    I am a composer who was struck by the comments Colin Eatock made here on 7/29, which I think are very perceptive. I have two degrees in music composition, but have largely ignored the fads and trends over the years and have concentrated...  read more


    READER: Of Social Complexity And Other "High" Arts
    By John Shaw
    posted @ 08/01/2004 8:45 am

    Justin and Greg, visual arts and literature have gone through very hermetic periods. Minimalism in visual arts works as almost the exact opposite of minimalism in classical -- it was hermetic and unpopular and mostly about its own history, whereas minimalism in classical music was engaging and popular and had emotional resonance with listeners... read more



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