Declining Literacy 1: Man Plus Moment

For instance, let’s take up the question which, in various forms, has been the focus of several recent Arts Journal entries: to use Douglas’s wording, Why has classical music fallen off the cultural literacy menu? Why do people who still take an interest in recent novels and paintings know so little about recent music, without feeling at all ashamed that they don’t know? Why has classical music ceased to be something cultured people care about, and why hasn’t postclassical music replaced it?

We truly don’t know. This is a mystery. My usual kneejerk explanations, along vaguely Marxist economic lines that cast aspersions on record companies and orchestra managements, are subject to pinpricks by a million counterexamples. On the other hands, poet and cutural critic Matthew Arnold (1822-1888) believed that each of the arts had inevitable periods of growth, excellence, decline, and torpidity, and that if you found yourself an artist in the wrong age, there was just nothing you could do about it. “The exercise of the creative power in the production of great works of literature or art,” he wrote in “The Function of Criticism at the Present Time,” “is not at all epochs and under all conditions possible;… therefore labor may be vainly spent in attempting it, which might with more fruit be used in preparing for it, in rendering it possible…. [F]or the creation of a master-work of literature two powers must concur, the power of the man and the power of the moment; and the man is not enough without the moment.” Similarly, George Orwell felt that certain arts could not reach high stages of excellence under certain types of government: the novel under totalitarianism, for example. In the U.S., when a work of art is unsatisfactory, we unquestioningly fault the artist, but there is a critical tradition according to which the artist is helpless against the deficiencies of his time.

Composers, of course, desperately resist this kind of fatalism. But it’s at least true that there is a natural evolution in the technique of music by which a language is developed through the collective contribution of many composers, and in the early stage of a new style, enduring quality can be simply impossible to achieve. Except for the late works of Bach and Handel, who were considered old-fashioned by then, the period 1740 to 1780 was such a slump, and the leading composers of that day – Wagenseil, Monn, Benda, the Stamitz’s, Bach’s sons – survive today only as musicological curiosities. Even Mozart’s music didn’t really mature until his 1780 contact with Haydn. I’ve always considered C.P.E. Bach a poster boy for the “man plus the moment” theory: he was clearly a genius with an astonishingly inventive mind, and yet as far as I’ve found he never wrote an entire piece (more than a movement here and there) that wasn’t patently flawed by some bizarre incommensurability between form and harmonic effect. C.P.E. had the genius, but he didn’t have a mature musical language available to express his genius in. 1714 was not a good year for a composer to be born.

At the same time, Arnold’s cultural theory may be subject to its own pinpricks. I personally don’t experience the present as such a slump. The former Times critic Donal Henahan, who made himself an enemy of modern music with an irrational vengeance, once challenged readers to make a list of wonderful works that could endure from the period after 1940. Always obliging, I wrote him one. I indeed had a difficult time coming up with recommendable titles for the 1950s and ’60s, but it became much easier through the ensuing decades. There may have been a musical slump from 1950 to 1975, and some may argue that we’re not completely out of it. Nevertheless, lots of my favorite music comes from the 1980s and ’90s – Bill Duckworth’s Southern Harmony and Imaginary Dances, Elodie Lauten’s Waking in New York, Mikel Rouse’s operas Failing Kansas and Dennis Cleveland, Diamanda Galas’s Plague Mass, John Luther Adams’s In the White Silence, Janice Giteck’s Om Shanti, Nancarrow’s late player piano studies, the electronic sampling works of Carl Stone, all of Morton Feldman’s late music, and on and on and on. Anyone familiar with my writing knows this list.

In general, though, even if we admitted being in a slump, I think people make too much of complaining about it. The complaint itself becomes so ingrained a habit that great music, when it finally appears, can hardly make a dent. Slumps are interesting, and not every generation has the opportunity to study one close up. It’s instructive to hear several ineffective pieces of music in a row and wonder, What incorrect assumption have those composers made that allows all those works to fail? Wagenseil is fun to listen to on occasion because his mistakes are so easy to spot. I have an inferiority complex when it comes to visual art, but every now and then I see a painting that seems indisputably bad, and I enjoy exercising my slim visual abilities in figuring out what’s bad about it – it gives me a feeling of superiority that Magritte and Picasso deny me. If we are, arguably, in the torpid stage of a new musical language that hasn”t formed yet, isn”t there any interest in observing its growth and imagining where it”s going to go? Does every piece have to provide the full payoff? Can’t the interactive working of the listener’s imagination be part of the pleasure? Or is full passivity what our concertgoers pay their money to experience?

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