A little more on the subject of my last post, the modernist music that dominates next year’s Boston Symphony programs.

Start with why I criticized that, and did it very strongly. Earlier today, I finished next month’s copy for my column on the NewMusicBox webzine. My subject — titled, tongue in cheek, “How We Can Save the World” — was about how the spirit and mood of new music concerts could change the classical music mainstream. In this piece, I said that people in the new music world (that includes me) should redouble our efforts to get more new music performances in the mainstream classical world:

If mainstream classical concerts had more new music, they’d change their tone. And yes, of course this is a battle we’ve been fighting for generations now, but the crisis in classical music gives us an opening we never had. And, I think, creates an openness inside the classical music world. So when we make our various pleas for more new music (not that all of us want to bother; for some of us, it’s just enough to do what we do—and without that, we wouldn’t be anywhere at all), we should insist that this is how classical music should be saved. (We should also protest loudly when any mainstream institution—like the Boston Symphony, in the upcoming first season under James Levine—picks new works exclusively from the old high-church school, Carter, Babbitt, and the like. We should yell, even scream, that this isn’t representative, that it’s not where new music is now, and can only alienate any possible audience, existing or new.)

You’ll be able to read the whole piece on February 1. After I finished, I thought, “Have I practiced what I preach? Have I protested those Boston Symphony programs?” The answer was no, so I thought I’d do it.


I’ve gotten one response, from someone I know — this came in conversation, not online — saying that at least Levine’s programs are interesting, better than most symphonic programming, representing a real point of view. And yes, they do have a point of view, but one, I think, that doesn’t help new music or the orchestra. Levine of course should conduct the music he believes in — and then guest conductors should do new music of a different kind.


And then there’s something else. Critics and other musical sophisticates are too quick, I think, to support new music programming more or less on principle, without regard for which works are being played. Well, not quite — if programming seems too easy, or too accessible (too much Philip Glass, let’s say) — then it’ll be criticized, but not if it’s too modernist. But let that be. What I most want to say is that I’m tired of supporting new music on principle. It’s like the old line about the talking dog — eventually you get over the shock of finding out it can speak, and start wondering what it has to say. So enough already with praising people simply because they play new music. That’s a hangup from what I take to be a highly abnormal situation, namely an art form — classical music — founded, as it’s practiced now, overwhelmingly on works from the past. One way to get past that is to treat new music as if it were normal, as if it’s just like music of any other kind. Do we like it? Then praise it. And if we don’t like it — say so.


Finally, there’s my own experience with modernism. I’ve long been seen as someone who doesn’t like modernist music, but that’s not strictly true. There’s some of it I like a lot, or even love (Webern, for instance). But what I don’t like — and I’m hardly alone here — is modernist dominance. That used to be the rule, back in the ’70s, when I was in music school, and into the ’80s. If you were a composer, you were supposed to write atonal music. If you didn’t, you were rejected, ignored, marginalized.


This has been discussed a lot, and the modernists — Milton Babbitt, especially, and Charles Wuorinen — have responded by saying they couldn’t possibly have had any power, because their works weren’t played very much. Well, their works weren’t played by mainstream classical music groups. But within the specialized world of contemporary music, they had lots of power. They and their colleagues had a lot to say about who got grants, who got teaching jobs, and who got performed on the specialized new music concerts that composers depended on for their first and often only chances to be heard.


It’s hard to understand what those days were like, if you weren’t there. Composers like Britten and Shostakovich were almost totally ignored. They didn’t write atonal music; they weren’t legitimate. (Boulez to this day treats Shostakovich as if he were some third-rate trifler.) Composers almost never talked about what their music felt like; instead, they’d analyze its structure, especially its pitch relationships. The whole scene, in retrospect, was repressive. You could call it anti-musical, in some ways even anti-human, despite the power and even the delight of some of the music (Webern, Babbitt, some of Carter, late Stravinsky) that was favored. I’ve had correspondence with one leading composer who’s a woman, was part of that scene, and feels, looking back, that in some ways it was anti-woman, too.


One composer I know, talking to the audience at a retrospective of her work, said that when she first started her career, she wrote serial music, because that’s what composers then were supposed to do. Then she heard Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time, and had her mind blown. Here was another way to write music that sounded radical and new. She started writing pieces inspired by that recognition, and all at once felt isolated, disapproved of. This pressure was real; it was difficult and ugly. I never suffered from it much, I want to say, just in case anybody thinks I’m making some personal campaign for the tonal music I’ve come to write. I opted out early, and threw my lot in with the so-called “downtown” composers, of whom the minimalists were the most famous. I wrote strong attacks on what I came to call “the complicated music gang,” but not because I had them on my own back. And now it’s easy to write tonal music. George Rochberg and David Del Tredici led the way, breaking with the modernists many years ago. Philip Glass and Steve Reich forged a new kind of style. In their wake, and Rochberg’s and Del Tredici’s (not to mention the excitement of Cage, Nancarrow, Lou Harrison, and others not part of any “uptown” or “downtown” school), we at last are free, both in theory and in practice, to write anything we like.


But that Boston programming, all those modernists — for me just reading all those names brings those bad old days back. I feel the chill of compulsion, the compulsion that we used to feel, in the contemporary music world, to like only modernist music, to write only that. That’s even true for composers like Ligeti and Lutoslawski, whose music is much freer than the modernist norm. They were embraced by the modernists (and in Ligeti’s case, emerged from the modernist, or more stricly speaking serialist cocoon), and when I see them on the Boston schedule, I don’t think of them as interesting or lively; I’m reminded of the pall the modernists cast over music, with their lists of who was and wasn’t legitimate.


On another note, though, I got e-mail — almost immediately after I’d posted my screed — from someone who says it isn’t true that modernists have no audience. This is something I’d be happy to be wrong about, and I hope my correspondent will let me post his thoughts in full.

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