Where Are the Philistines?

We all know what was wrong with modernist music: it had no melody, it was so dissonant you couldn’t tell whether people were playing the right notes or not, it expressed only anxiety, it was either loud and savage and unpleasant (Stockhausen), or it was dull, gray, too technical, and unmemorable (Babbitt). And so audiences stayed out of the concert hall when it was played, and wrote angry letters to orchestra managements. The music itself is widely taken to justify audiences’ lack of interest in it.

And we all know what was wrong with minimalism: it was trivial, predictable, simple-minded, dumbed down, doodely-doodely and aimless. To this day, mention in educated company that you like something by Philip Glass, and you’re guaranteed at least an involuntary sneer or two. The music is too stupid to merit attention from serious listeners.

So, people: what’s wrong with postclassical music? What’s wrong with the musics of Mary Ellen Childs, John Luther Adams, Walter Zimmermann, Nick Didkovsky, Laetitia Sonami, Bill Duckworth, John Oswald, Janice Giteck? You certainly can’t say that Elodie Lauten’s music lacks melody. You can’t call Michael Maguire’s music simplistic. You can’t say Carman Moore’s music is unpleasant. There’s no denying that Paul Epstein’s music is intricately constructed. You can’t accuse Mikel Rouse of being out of touch with pop culture. You can’t listen to Postclassic Radio and say that every piece expresses only anxiety, or even that they all express the same thing. And yet there must be something wrong with it, because 1. every new music is inevitably met with a chorus of disapproval from those who prefer the old music, and 2. institutions and large audiences ignore this body of music, and when that happens it’s always the music’s fault. Besides, every musical movement truly is one-sided in some way or another, and the criticisms are often just, as far as they go. I always think of Schoenberg’s brilliant comment: “So it is with all great men. At each is leveled every accusation of which the opposite is true. Yes, all, and with such accuracy that one is quite taken aback by it.”

But no one’s leveling accusations at this music. So, let’s put postclassical music on trial, and Postclassic Radio is as good a place to start as any. Why haven’t the Philistines made their pronouncement? One of the ways in which new music works its way into public consciousness is through the negative, disapproving recognition of its new qualities. And on the other hand, if there isn’t anything wrong with postclassical music, then there’s no justification for ignoring it, excluding it from the concert halls and from history, is there?

The following e-mail that I just received from Michael Wittmann, a physicist who has his own radio show at the University of Maine, is not too atypical of responses I get:

This is wonderful…. For the past few days, I’ve spent all day listening to your feed. I haven’t tired of it…. I’ve been seeking this music for years. It touches a place in me the way Mondrian, Frankenthaler, Rothko, Baer, Tufte and Smithson do in art…. This is absolutely incredible to listen to. Piece after piece is in the zone where I drift off at the astonishing beauty of it. Like right now: Bunita Marcus, Adam and Eve. Oh my GOD. I want to capture the audio feed so that I can listen again.

Now you’d think that if I get a totally objective and unsolicited reaction like that every couple of weeks, and I do, that the composers I’m playing, like Dan Becker and Belinda Reynolds and Daniel Lentz and Chas Smith and David Garland, might start to become famous and taken very seriously in the music business. But they don’t, much, and the Philistines must know what’s wrong with this music that it should be ignored. Why won’t they speak?