[UPDATE BELOW] From David Byrne, as part of his response to Zimmermann’s opera Die Soldaten on his web site:
There are lots of books exploring what the fuck happened with 20th century classical music, when many composers willfully sought to alienate the general public and create purposefully difficult, inaccessible music. Why would they do anything that perverse? Why would they not only make music that was hard to listen to, but also demand, as in the case of Zimmerman, that the piece be performed on twelve separate stages simultaneously, with the addition of giant projection screens and other multimedia aspects? Were these composers competing to see whose works could be heard and performed the least? Why would anyone do that?
Having closely observed the behavior of New York’s downtown, avant-garde music scene for a few decades, I can say that this impulse is not limited to academic classical composers. There are many musicians and composers of experimental works who seemingly compete for the title of most obscure and most difficult for the listener, and even record collectors like to play along. In this world, any trace of popularity, however slight, is distasteful and to be avoided at all costs. Should a work become unexpectedly accessible, the artist must then follow the piece with something completely perverse and disgusting, encouraging members of the new, undesired audience to walk away shaking their heads, leaving behind the core of pure and hardy aficionados. This is elitism of a different sort. If one can’t be fêted by the handful of patrons at the Met, then one can be just as elite by cultivating an audience equally rarified in the completely opposite direction. Extreme ugliness and unpleasantness becomes the mirror image of extreme luxury and beauty.
This passage suggests that Byrne has not closely observed the behavior of the Downtown scene for a few decades, for had he closely observed it, he would have noticed that a broad swath of Downtown music – not all of it, admittedly – has been devoted to music of great beauty, clarity, and accessibility. (Not that those are the only musical virtues: some of the music included in the above critique I’m probably a fan of.) From a certain angle, clearly the only angle from which Mr. Byrne sees it, that multifaceted creature Downtown music has been encapsulated as the world of John Zorn, Elliott Sharp, and their cohorts, who during the 1980s unfortunately succeeded in obscuring the fact that Downtown was first the world of Steve Reich, Charlemagne Palestine, Pauline Oliveros, Laurie Anderson, Elodie Lauten, William Duckworth, and a few hundred others. Byrne’s eloquent attack is pitch-perfect as far as its appropriate target goes, and still relevant; still, he’s about 25 years late in failing to recognize that hundreds, perhaps thousands of composers had already agreed with him by 1980, and set about doing something about it. Quite a bit about it, actually.