“Of course, criteria for what constitutes an ‘idea’ in the first place have shifted and changed in this century, especially since the advent of radical modernism. So much so, in fact, that, for some composers, texture, color, layered sounds – none of which are particularly memorable or indelible to the ear because they are over-generalized sound-complexes, too diffuse and non-specific – take the place of ‘idea’ in the sense I mean it.”
I had always assumed, and written, that Rochberg had never quite had his ear bent out of whack by his 12-tone training because he was born earlier (1918) than most of the hard-core 12-toners (mostly born in the 1920s), and had too much other experience before the 12-tone idea took over. It turns out, however, that due to fighting in World War II he got off to a little bit of a late start, and that his differentness within his milieu seems to be more due to his working as an editor for Theodore Presser during the 1950s, before rejoining academia at the age of 42 (the same age Morton Feldman and I took teaching jobs). That means that he had a lot of the same experiences that a composer-critic gets: writing music while being deluged with other people’s music, seeing the full range of styles available in one’s time, and becoming acutely aware of each style’s clichés through endless repetition. (At least, that’s what it would have meant in the 1950s; today, working for a music publisher, you’d come across only a tiny sliver of the most conservative possible music, and would receive a totally unrealistic picture of what’s going on.)
Of course, Rochberg found rock music abhorrent (the ultimate fruition of Russolo’s “art of noise,” he said) and had no sympathy for the post-Cage attempt to treat ambient sounds as aesthetic objects. But on music before his own, his opinions match mine remarkably well: for instance, the only Schoenberg piano piece he found attractive was Op. 11, and had no use at all for the late 12-tone piano pieces, Opp. 23, 25, and 33, which he found totally counterintuitive and abstract. (And this coming from America’s best 12-tone composer!) For Rochberg, the sine qua non of music was memorability; if a piece didn’t stick in his mind, creating an aching desire to hear it again, he deemed it unsuccessful. I’ve fought with this criterion, trying to keep in mind that there are other, sufficient musical virtues – but when push comes to shove, I ultimately have to admit that I feel exactly the same way.
There seemed so little celebration of Rochberg’s life and music after he died that I’ve been wondering if the neglect was an expression of academia’s resentment that Rochberg quit playing the game. As a famous composer at the University of Pennsylvania, he rejected 12-tone technique, stylistic organicism, Schenkerian analysis – did they pay him back by ignoring him? Many other composers also quit playing the game after Rochberg led the way, of course, but his apostasy was not only first, but very public and damningly articulate. I have a few Uptown composers I’ve adopted over the years, whose music I loved as a teenager, before I knew any distinction between Uptown and Down-, and which never lost its attraction for me: Ben Weber, Ralph Shapey, Stefan Wolpe, George Rochberg. They all turn out to have entered academia late, if at all, and to have remained outsiders in some way, not considered entirely respectable by the “ruling elite.” I didn’t know that about any of them when their musics first grabbed my attention – and until recently I wasn’t aware of how true it appears to be of Rochberg.