Success in Obscurity

With reference to my blog entry about composers writing specifically for recordings:

Art Jarvinen – a crazily creative Los Angeles composer whose music you would do well to check out – tells me about a late friend of his, Michael McCandless, who was part of a group of young composers at SUNY Buffalo who were writing pieces longer than 90 mintutes each. The reason was, not to imitate Morton Feldman as one might assume, but explicitly because 90 minutes couldn’t fit on a CD. It was their way, Jarvinen attests, of rejecting the commodification of music-as-CD, and insisting on the live experience. Jarvinen himself has a 24-hour piano piece (though he is releasing a one-disc version of it).

I can believe it. Anti-commercialism is a little-acknowledged motivation running through certain strands of music of the last 50 years. This was one not-too-widely-trumpeted impetus behind serialist music of the 1950s, or so Adorno fervently believed and Boulez seemed to confirm. Boulez championed a music so complex, so devoid of redundancy, that it defeated any attempt to hold on to it in memory, and Adorno took this as a rejection of the commercialisation, the “fetishism” of classical music, that had so vastly increased with the advent of recordings and piped-in background music. One aim of all that massive serialist complexity was to create a music that bourgeois music-lovers couldn’t smugly listen to on their home stereos the way they did Tchaikovsky. By 1955 (!), however, Adorno was already complaining that serialists had turned their back on this purity and were writing “masterpieces” ready for the culture museum.

The attitude persists in Downtown Manhattan today. Many composers resist labels and categorization of their music as a “cheap marketing ploy” – with the implication that wrapping up one’s music for public consumption is in itself a bad thing. We complain about the lack of commercial success for contemporary music, but a large swath of contemporary music has always pushed public success away with both hands – and in that respect, has been phenomenally successful.