The Whole History of Music, from Cage to Zorn

Critic Marc Geelhoed, who’s moving to the great old Chicago Reader where I started out my career (1983-86), responds to my post about composers in academia with some gratifying reflections:

It was kind of beyond the scope of your blog, but you didn’t mention the value composers bring to their communities. The biggest benefit, to me at least, a composer can have on his or her community is having the chance to expose the citizens to music they wouldn’t hear otherwise. This is especially true in small colleges outside the major urban areas. This is assuming they have some say in programming recitals and concerts, which usually comes with the territory of teaching, I think.

Composers also demystify new music and allow people to put a human face on composers. This reduced the fear factor a little. Talking and smiling before a piece has to help the audience a little.

Nice to hear the presence of composers so appreciated. As a composer who works to expose young people to radical and unknown music, though, I have to report that we struggle with an ongoing dilemma of priorities: Can we introduce students to Sorabji, Nono, Partch, Cecil Taylor, Meredith Monk, when they come out of high school not yet having heard of Brahms, Wagner, Stravinsky, Charlie Parker, Bartok? It’s difficult, in a brief four years, especially in a liberal arts environment where the sciences and literature demand much of their attention, to inculcate some firm sense of a normative musical practice, and yet also spend significant time with the interesting weirdos. Painted onto a tabula rasa, Haydn seems just about as kooky as Anthony Braxton and vice versa. My colleagues and I periodically toy with the idea of starting out, “Classical music was invented in 1952, when a man named John Cage wrote a piece called 4’33”.” Fortunately or not, our attempt to start the history of music over from scratch invariably breaks down somewhere – often because I have to teach the late Beethoven sonatas, and my friends can’t stand them not hearing Varèse.