Make that “Small-Ensemble Music”

One of New York’s self-admitted curmudgeonly composers, who wishes to remain anonymous for understandable reasons, responds to my “Master Narratives” blog entry, going even a little further than I would have:

It has always been curious (and frustrating) to see that contemporary musicians are so willing to anchor themselves to the very narrative that you write about. How many times have you been in a conversation nominally about new music, only to have someone in the group say things like “well, its just like what Bach did in The Art of Fugue” or “If Mozart was alive, he’d definitely have dual processors in his Macintosh” – and my personal favorite, “Beethoven was a great improvisor.” Or even composers who bring in historical references into their new works by titling them “Sonata” or “Variations” or the worst – “Ars [fill in the blank].”

My point being, all of this falls into the linear narrative of Eurocentric concert music from the Great Centuries. Yes, the press wants to talk about orchestras, but look at how many of our composers (friends, even!) are still trying to knock on the doors of the concert world (and taking their knocks), speaking in the rhetoric of that world, and perpetuating the myth that they are a welcome part of it.

“Chamber music” – give me a break!

Well, yes, when was the last time a string quartet was actually played in a “chamber”? My own pet peeve is American composers who pretentiously write not only “Adagio” in a score when they mean “slow,” but “al niente” and even “con gran espressione.” When it’s students, I always taunt them: “You have an ensemble in Italy you’re sending this score to?” Beethoven rebelled by writing “Hammerklavier” instead of “Fortepiano” on his Op. 106, but many Americans have yet to make so bold a break from the old country.

And another composer writes:

Every generation believes civilization will die with it. It’s a mystery to me exactly what the classical music establishment gets from its members-only doomsday scenario. Still, I have to say: The sooner, the better.

Note to orchestras: don’t expect a lot of sympathy from the composing community.