Declining Literacy 2: Music’s Tower of Babel

Whether we’re in a slump ot not, however, I can point to one obvious large obstacle to cultural literacy about recent music: an alarming disunity in the opinions of composers and critics, and even an incredible dearth of common reference points. We are in a radically splintered situation, in which the artistic figures who seem like gods to one group of musicians can sometimes be totally unknown to another group. For instance, it seems to me unquestionable that Robert Ashley, now in his 70s, is the leading, and most excitingly innovative, opera composer of the late 20th century. Dozens of my friends would concur. Yet I mentioned Ashley recently to a good composer well-known on the orchestra circuit, and he responded, “I’ve never heard his music. What’s it like?” Meanwhile, an opera coach with decades of experience, overhearing me state that opinion, ventured with some consternation he’d never heard the name. Similarly, Richard Danielpour is a big cheese in certain classical circles, but if I polled my Downtown Manhattan composer friends I would probably find few who had ever heard a note of his music.

So pity the poor audience member who would really like to become conversant in today’s music. She looks at the Pulitzer Prize list and memorizes names of composers presumably celebrated. She reads my column in the Village Voice and sees those composers dismissed, and another group held up as exemplary. Reading Paul Griffiths until recently in the Times, she would have learned that today’s great composers, besides Elliott Carter, are all European in their 70s, and write “difficult” music. At BAM and Lincoln Center she will hear composers dismissed by the Times and the Pulitzer both. If she attends concerts at universities she will hear an entirely different set. If perchance she goes to Patelson’s music and looks through published scores, she will find an eccentric-seeming group of names pushed by the music publishing industry. At Tower Records she will find that the composers who have success in publishing are not the ones who put out the most CDs, and so on. And if she conscientiously pays attention to a variety of publicity sources, she will conclude that the best-known young composer around is Michael Torke – and then be astonished when she learns that his music is considered ludicrous by composers from a wide range of aesthetic backgrounds. Anyone with a nonmusical life to live would have given up long before this.

The musical mainstream ended in the 1970s, and we all consciously watched it topple like Saddam’s statue (if one will forgive the unhappy metaphor of a mainstream toppling), though with as much apprehension as rejoicing. We are obviously in a transitional phase, but the new direction(s) to come is (are) up for grabs, and in such situations every group united by common values makes a play for power. Since 1980 the big divide has been between the waning modernists who are holding on for good old-fashioned virtues of intellectuality, complexity, and audience discomfort in music, against those who resist the elitism of only writing for colleagues. Even beyond that, though, each side diffracts further into a whole rainbow of viewpoints: notation versus improvisation, structure versus intuitive emotionality, technological expertise versus performer expressivity, self-expression versus public accessibility. Musicians often claim that the present state of confusion is a good thing, because it gives everyone a chance at a career, and doesn’t pressure anyone into a particular aesthetic path. That’s probably true – and yet it does make it damnably difficult for the wider public (who after all need not just a cursory listening but to steep themselves for awhile in a new style) to find anything at all to latch onto as a landmark.

And so when people come up to me and ask me what they should do to find out what’s really good in postclassical music, it’s with a sinking feeling that I can only come up with two hesitant options: “Well… you can take my word for it, which I don’t recommend because you’ll be considered eccentric – or you can devote your life, as I have, to figuring it out.”