Forty years behind

I got beat up by some of my valued readers when I said — in an earlier post — that Magnus Lindberg’s music “plunged me back into the Second Vienna School.” Or, more broadly, that Lindberg composes “in a style that, broadly speaking (and whatever may have been added to it since) was new around 1910.”

Nor did I help myself by mistakenly saying he’s Swedish. Finnish, rather.

And OK, I did admit I was exaggerating. But when I said that the Philharmonic — where Lindberg is now composer in residence — is thirty years behind in its approach to new music, I feel 100% vindicated by what Lindberg said at a Philharmonic concert last night.

Once again, the Philharmonic played Lindberg’s Expo, which they commissioned from him as a kind of musical celebration to kick off the new season — not to mention Alan Gilbert’s reign as the Philharmonic’s new music director — and premiered a couple of weeks ago at their opening gala. Last night I thought, as I thought at the opening, that the piece was weighed down by its debt to European modernism of all generations, so much so that it didn’t sound (to me) very celebratory.

Though certainly it’s well written, and there are terrific moments in it. But LIndberg also talked about the piece, and there I just rolled my eyes. Not that I mind a concert that starts with Gilbert and Lindberg coming out on stage together, to talk to the audience about the new work. The more of that the better, I say. Bravo to Gilbert for changing the rules. (And more about that in a later post.)

But what Lindberg said! Expo, God help us, has triads in it. Triads! And these, Lindberg said, were absolutely forbidden when he went to music school in the 1970s.(As they were at the Yale School of Music, when I studied composition there in the same era.)  But now, at last, and evidently after much pondering, Lindberg feels he can write them, as long as he takes proper care to integrate them into his otherwise nontriadic compositional language.

I could say that his caveat — the care he needs to take with triads — sounds to me like the weight of his modernist background is bearing down hard on him.

But maybe I’m wrong, and anyway, that’s not what matters. Let’s think about triads. Lindberg, after maybe years of pondering, thinks he now dares to use them. But since his days in music school — and mine — more than a few composers beat him to it.

I’m not talking now of composers (Ned Rorem, Samuel Barber, Menotti, Bernstein, Carlisle Floyd, so many more) who’d always written triads, and never joined the modernist camp. I’m talking about composers with a genuine radical pedigree, who way back in the ’70s started clearing some new triadic paths.

George Rochberg, when I was in school, was a special inspiration, a former 12-tone composer who now wrote lush, tonal music (in his Third String Quartet, for instance), which sounded almost like Mahler. David Del Tredici blazed his own, somewhat similar (and certainly triadic) path.

Penderecki joined the new tonal camp some years later. And we’ve also had — writing triads, if not in every case full-fledged tonal scores — Steve Reich, Philip Glass, Golijov, Meredith Monk, Louis Andriessen, William Bolcom, John Corigliano, Gorecki, Schnittke. Arvo Pärt, such a long list. Plus names I’m surely blanking on. Charles Wuorinen, in his 12-tone fortress, has written triads. Reich, Glass, and Monk have been writing them for the entire length of Lindberg’s student and professional life.

More: when Lindberg and I were in music school, Britten and Shostakovich were writing triads. But at least where I was (the Yale School of Music) we never talked about them. It’s as if they were embarrassments. Great living composers who somehow wrote tonal music. Too good to dismiss, but embarrassing to praise. Better not to mention them. Now, of course, their music bothers very few people (Pierre Boulez, and who else?), and we accept them in the pantheon. Add them, then, to the composers using triads during Lindberg’s life in music.

Given all this, how can Lindberg come out on stage and talk about writing triads as if that’s something new? New for him, sure. And his history is just as valid as anyone else’s. But everyone else’s history doesn’t stop existing just because his own is different. He might more embracingly have said, “Look, when I was in music school, triads were forbidden. But since then, all kinds of composers started using them. I didn’t. Well, now I’ve started to, and here’s what I think about it.” What a breath of fresh air that would have been! No blame to him for not writing triads earlier. But at least he’d acknowledge the world he and the rest of us are living in.

By not doing that, he basically told us, “Hey, I’m living in a bubble.” And the Philharmonic, by choosing him as composer in residence, is living in that bubble, too, even if they’ve programmed Nico Muhly (who writes not just triads, but often a pop-music beat) on one of the upcoming concerts by their new contemporary music ensemble.

Maybe Lindberg feels that this triad thing is very American. Well, fine, and others have taken that view. But he’s in America now — and, even more, in New York, where a whole new generation of young composers is happily writing triads — and it’s simple courtesy to acknowledge what goes on here.

Besides, look again at my list of triad-using composers — Penderecki, Pärt, Schnittke, major European names. (Gorecki maybe not so much, because he wasn’t all that well known before the amazement of the Third Symphony, and he more or less dropped out of sight after his big success. Though he’d been using triads earlier. His Second Symphony, which no one seems to play, has, for me, a more triumphant use of triads than the Third.)

Or maybe Lindberg hates a lot of this non-modernist triadic stuff. Fine. That’s his right. But he could say so, in a considerate way, maybe like this:  “Other composers, and I’m sure you know their names, have been using triads for decades. But I haven’t always found them convincing, because they seemed to move too far from the tradition I’m loyal to. I had to learn to use triads in my own way.” That, too, would have been lovely — honest, courteous, informative.

Bottom line — Lindberg should get out of his bubble. I’m not saying he’s a bad composer, or a bad guy. He strikes me as completely honest. And nobody, least of all me, should dare tell him what sort of music he should write.

But he just can’t come on stage and talk about new music as if — implicitly — his own modernist concerns are the only ones that really matter. Especially since the modernist composing community used to think and talk that way a lot. And in fact got the intellectual part of the classical music world talking as if the mainline of composition (after the 19th century) was atonal, running from Schoenberg to Boulez, and then to later modernists like Lindberg. Leaving out, of course, some of the most important composers of the time (Sibelius, Ravel, Puccini, Poulenc, Britten, Shostakovich, Steve Reich, so many more). As if these great names were mere outsides, not writing the music that really mattered.

We have to get out of this bubble. Not just Lindberg — and please, I’m beating up on him here not as a composer, but only as a musical figure, representing new classical music to the wider Philharmonic audience. So, yes, not just Lindberg, but the Philharmonic, too. Out of the bubble! On stage at Avery Fisher Hall last night, Lindberg, Alan Gilbert, and (because of them) the entire institution sounded nut just thirty years behind the times, but almost forty.

Enough of that. Time to wake up.

Share on FacebookTweet about this on TwitterShare on RedditEmail this to someone


  1. says

    Greg, I’m not about to dispute anything you’ve said here in this characteristically smart self-proclaimed rant. I will say this, however: Speaking candidly on stage, without a script, is an act of improvisation, and you’ll almost always realize after the fact that you could’ve said something differently, maybe better. I know that’s frequently the case for me.

    Since I didn’t see you on Thursday night, I’m assuming you saw this Wednesday. But on Thursday, Lindberg was more clear that triads were effectively verboten during his own training, and that he’d not come to them as a conscious, defiant pose, but rather that they’d arrived as part of a gradual evolution in his musical language.

    It’s been my experience that most composers aren’t oblivious to what their forebears and peers are doing, even when they actually claim that they are. But many do seem to try to abstain from discussing them in order to avoid the entanglements of influence and judgment. On Thursday, Lindberg spoke of his harmonic development as being in some ways similar to Wagner’s, and in some ways the opposite of Puccini’s. He refrained from discussing contemporaries, but was clear that it was his own path he was detailing.

    Could Lindberg have been clearer if he’d scripted his remarks, and perhaps, given the language barrier, had his statements vetted by a native English speaker? Perhaps. But it would have been contrary to the spirit of an exchange that we clearly both found refreshing.

    Again, I offer this not as corrective but simply fodder.

    Hi, Steve. Thanks for this, and if you like, correct me firmly. If you think I’m wrong, I can take it!

    I was there on Thursday, and in fact saw you. Wanted to say hello, but was with a friend, and otherwise engaged.

    So we heard the same comments. I certainly know what you mean about getting up in public and not quite saying what you meant to. It’s happened to me, for sure.

    But on the other hand, I also know what it is to reveal your biases when you speak, though you may not be conscious of doing so, and may not have meant that. And this particular bias I’ve been around for years. People used to be much more open about it. “Philip Glass?” (I used to hear this a lot in the early ’80s.) “His music is junk. He writes it for money. Why else would he write such crap?” So it wouldn’t occur to them, talking about the mainstream of music history, to give Philip a place as anything but some kind of grotesque sideshow.

    I’m not saying Lindberg says or does this. But I put his remarks last night in the context of many other things I’ve heard and read over the years. And experienced firsthand. For instance, Paul Griffiths, in his 1982 (I think) book “Modern Music,” treating serialism, Boulez, Babbitt, and others — with a nod at Cage — as the whole story of his subject. Steve Reich came in for a brief, not very involved treatment. Paul then modified his views considerably in later writings, especially his revision of “Modern Music,” but there it was. The bias in the first version couldn’t have been clearer. Or, more to the point, the view of what mattered in musical history.

    Then there’s at least one review Paul wrote of Meredith Monk when he was at the Times, just about dismissing her as a naive child. Not even stopping to acknowledge that others thought otherwise.

    Or a discussion leaked to me, from inside a panel that had to decide on a greatly prestigious award to a composer. Steve Reich’s name came up. One panelist, whose name you and I are very familiar with, was thoroughly dismissive, as if what Steve writes can’t even been called music

    Or endless discussions, on panels, at conferences, in writing, and in private conversation, about new music, during the the first half of the ’80s. Anything “downtown,” anything minimalist, wouldn’t even be mentioned, as if (again) it existed only in some unworthy sideshow. Or maybe not even that, since it wasn’t even mentioned.

    Or the New York premiere of “Satyagraha,” at BAM. Without, as far as I can see, any notable mainstream composers in the audience. I knew a lot of them, and also knew their look, from endless new music concerts.

    Old examples? Well, the one from the panel involving Steve Reich is pretty recent. Or I could look at the new music played at Juilliard, by the New Juilliard Ensemble, the Focus festival, or the new group, Axiom. Very weighted — especially Axiom, which is supposed to be the rebel group — toward the modernist establishment. I’ve talked to Juilliard students who aren’t at all aware of, let’s say, Bang on a Can. Even if, outside school, they play in rock bands.

    Or Esa-Pekka Salonen, speaking at a Philharmonic concert when his piano concerto was played. Talking about his realization that he didn’t have use serialism — with (just like Lindberg) no acknowledgment that this was, for the larger music world, a discovery made 50 years ago, and that it’s not an issue that concerns many composers now, at least in the US.

    Or a musicologist I met during a visit to a large midwestern music school, whose views on new music are much like yours and mine, but whose courses stress Boulez as the central figure in the development of classical composition after World War II. Or Richard Taruskin’s monumental and wild five-volume history of classical music, which disputes the central position so many people give Carter and Babbitt, while at the same time giving them as much space in the text as more orthodox writers do, who believe Carter and Babbitt are the central mainstream.

    All of which is to say that the musical/cultural position I found in Lindberg’s remarks has been with us for a long time, and is still around. The central tradition of new music is the atonal one. Everything else, however notable, is peripheral. So when you come to talk about your own evolution, you talk, quite unconsciously, from a point of view that marginalizes a lot of important music. Including music that addresses the very issue you’re talking about (in this case, the use of triads), because it’s only when your privileged tradition starts to use triads that they can really be said to matter.

    I remember panel discussions about new music back in 1984, at Aspen, when the establishment types all started talking about “pluralism,” which was their way of acknowledging that minimalists were in the house. But not their house, of course. The talk about pluralism didn’t create any genuine pluralist attitude. The established new music remained front and center, and the establishment figures asserted, in a subtle way, their own view of their privileged position by making themselves the ones who gave the pluralist label to what was going on in the world outside them. They still called the shots, in other words.

    And I still see more than traces of this today. If one of my students wrote, in a paper for me, what Lindberg had said, I’d have written a pretty stern comment to them about what they were leaving out. Just as, if a student dismissed all atonal music as not being worth talking about (or listening to), I’d write a stern comment about that.

    I think that unconscious biases like Lindberg’s — which Alan Gilbert left unchallenged — are one of the reasons someone like David Lang will say, not happily, that he feels like a “weirdo” around orchestras like the Philharmonic.

    Or do I protest too much? We’re lucky, Steve, that in NY we move freely among so many kinds of new music. But not everyone does, and outside New York, the chance to do that — and even, sometimes, the acknowledgment that it can be done — just isn’t there.

    Oh — and also…your own interview with Lindberg, the one that ran in Arts & Leisure last Sunday. Certainly that showed him tied up with the compositional issues of a generation ago.

  2. says

    Hmmmmmm. Looking at the above, I think it would be more accurate if I’d said Lindberg described his harmonic *practice* (or some such) as being similar to Wagner’s and the opposite of Puccini’s — he wasn’t likening his development to either one.

    Think I’ve just demonstrated my own point about “speaking” candidly without preparation.

  3. karl7777 says

    I ask the following in complete honesty/naivety:

    Isn’t the whole ‘music that’s not of it’s time’ part of the Modernist legacy? Historical necessity and all that stuff?

    I thought we were living in an age of post-modern pluralism, where all the old ‘my style is more important than yours’ arguments were no longer taken seriously.

    Did I miss a memo?

  4. says

    Boy, this website and its comments just keep getting more and more stimulating — thanks for your honesty in your post. I think you’re unduly harsh and missing one crucial point, but I’m really glad you raised the issue, because I know for a fact that there are a host of lesser composers for whom fashion is more important than their inner voice.

    And that’s the key distinction — all of the counter-examples you provide in response to Steve Smith’s insightful comment are not from composers talking about their own compositional style, but from individuals (whether composers or not) acting in the capacity of critic of the works of others.

    In reacting to your post, I was immediately reminded of what was for me (stupid and naive as I actually was at the time) a revelation about serialism and what it meant to the composers who wrote serial music.

    In a 20th Century Music Theory class at Oberlin taught by the composer Ed Miller, at one point, one of the student composers in the class just asked him “What are you working on right now?” Miller responded very enthusiastically, relating how he’d recently made a huge breakthrough — he’d had a sound ideal in mind that he really wanted to use in a piece, and he’d just found the tone row that yielded that sound.


    When I’d absorbed the import of this, I realized that I’d always thought that tone rows were something you constructed artificially, for reasons that had nothing to do with the actual *sonorities* produced by the music composed around it. This little exchange led me to realize that the tone row was a way to organize and structure the sonority in a way that allowed for (to the composer) rational manipulation of it in a way that was consistent, logical and non-arbitrary. And that was the point at which I understood Schoenberg’s term “12-tone tonality” — serialism wasn’t the opposite of tonality, but a system by which you could invent myriad tonalities, with each row being its own particular tonality, its own individual musical sound world with it’s own harmonic and melodic implications.

    But the main head-slapper was the realization that for the serial composer, the sound came first, and the tone row was designed to yield the desired musical result, and was just a structure that served as a framework within which to build a piece that inhabited that particular row’s tonality.

    It made me feel like I’d been very stupid all those previous years, since it showed that I basically thought serial composers were insincere, and not really concerned with sonority, but only with non-musical abstractions of a mathematical and geometric nature that were then used to generate music that was arbitrary from a “musical sense,” even if rigorously rational in its relationship to the row. This exchange taught me that there was nothing arbitrary at all about the choice of row, that musical desires came before the row, and the row was just an organizational tool.

    The reason your Lindberg observations remind of this personal epiphany by is that I perceive Lindberg’s comments as applying to himself and his personal musical style. That is, over the years of composing, he had developed his own musical language, one that did not use triads, and until recently had found no place in it to incorporate triads a way that did not contradict his musical style.

    The epiphany for Lindberg, as I read the comments you relay, is not that he’s discovered that anybody could use triads to compose, but that *he* could use triads, and not be abandoning the tenets of his own personal musical style.

    Now, I could certainly be wrong on this.

    He might have been betraying an attitude that I’d say is very insular (i.e., as though nobody else had managed to do it well enough to be worthy of notice until he did it), but I just don’t read it that way, and I think your reaction is uncharitable for two reasons:

    1. it is very insulting to Lindberg to imagine he’s ignorant of 30 years of music such that he doesn’t know that lots of composers have been very successful (and rigorous) writing music with triads.

    2. it’s also uncharitable to attribute to him the prejudices of those who make a point of badmouthing non-modernist music. Just because he, personally, has come to a point where he feels triads express what he’s trying to say doesn’t mean that he thinks that others who reached that point long ago were somehow compromised.

    And I would say (probably much more controversially) that composers (along with most performers and artists, in my experience) are seldom all that articulate in talking about their own work. As you should know every well, and as Steve Smith knows, it’s a lot of work to learn how to talk well about music in a nontrivial way (whether spoken or written). The chief job of a composer is to write music, not to explain the music.

    Likewise, I think we have a prejudice derived from the post-war positivistic mindset that was prevalent at least into the 80s, that the score only means one thing, whereas composers (in my experience) are often surprised and delighted at the variety of things those who work with their music discover in it.

    In short, one of the reasons composers are often rather equivocal in speaking about their music is because they may not have the kind of clear ideas about their own compositions that make for compelling lectures or newspaper articles — a composer may actually be quite inarticulate in speaking about her own music. This is because speaking about it is secondary — the music is what is primary.

    So, in short, I think you’re being too harsh on Lindberg, since his comments may have been more about his personal stylistic evolution than they were about the broader musical cultural environment.

    David W. Fenton

  5. says

    My only thought on this is to wonder why a composer needs to come on stage to explain his use of triads. The only people in the audience who would even know what he was talking about would be those who have some amount of music theory in their background which, to me, feels like a problem. If a composer can come on stage and talk about theory to a crowd and everyone glosses right over the fact that the theory shouldn’t be important to the listener, then our audience may be made up of entirely too many musicians. Maybe it’s just me, but I feel as though the music should be able to stand on it’s own without an explanation of why the theory is so neat at the beginning. When people listen to pop music, they simply enjoy it, they don’t worry about how complicated the modulations are. Too often, this isn’t the case with classical music.

  6. Steve Soderberg says

    Hi, Greg…

    As you possibly know, I am a card-carrying music theorist. As you may not know, I am also a card-carrying member of the Facebook Group “Hexachordal Combinatoriality Has Twelve Syllables. Coincidence? I think Not.”

    Through the miracle supplied by my computer’s “Find” command, I was able to quickly count the number of times you used the word “triad” in your piece: 24! Ergo we should now forever label you a quarter-tone critic-composer who likes to use triads. Placing people and ideas in boxes may be painful, but, after all, statistics don’t lie.

    Serious suggestion #1: Everyone even remotely interested in what you have written here and on the topic of serialism in the past should go to a library and pick up the August 2008 issue of Journal of the Society for American Music. There you will find an article by Joseph Straus entitled “A Revisionist History of Twelve-Tone Serialism in American Music.” One section, entitled “Myth No.9: The Myth of Anti-Tonality” is to the point of this whole bizarre eruption. (It seems a new strain of one of Straus’ 12 (yes, 12) myths breaks out in the popular press or other novice blog every time there’s a full moon — roughly 12 times a year).)

    [I don’t seriously believe anyone will go looking for Straus’ article. So…]

    Serious suggestion #2: Greg, since you claim first-hand knowledge of this, please tell your readers just WHY “triads” were avoided (not forbidden by anyone I know of) ONLY in the very early development of serial/12-tone techniqueS. I think that many out there, due to so much misinformation having been spread by “critics” over the years, are under the impression that composers of that time were trying to avoid or stamp out “pretty” or “beautiful” or “lush” or even “traditional” sonorities — thereby giving rise to the current situation: apparently many still swallow the false dichotomy of beautiful/tonal/consonant vs. ugly/atonal/dissonant. Maintaining this dichotomy has become a cottage industry & it would do a great service to the music world if you would help correct this mistaken impression.

    Once you straighten this out for everyone, maybe then it will be easier to place Lindberg’s comments and intentions, whatever they were, in some meaningful context.

    Steve Soderberg

  7. Janis says

    If a composer can come on stage and talk about theory to a crowd and everyone glosses right over the fact that the theory shouldn’t be important to the listener, then our audience may be made up of entirely too many musicians.

    ITA. This was a major problem with prog-rock. They were playing for other musicians, which is why some of the better prog-rock bands never … well, connected with a large audience, which is what is apparently the problem that’s under discussion: classical music isn’t bringing in a new audience.

    Trying to appeal to yet one more tiny little sliver of (presumably leisured) connoisseurs isn’t going to solve the problem.

    I remember hearing an interview with Gregg Rolie thirty years after the fact where he talked about the initial prog-rock he was involved in after leaving Santana. He flat-out called it self-indulgent and said that they were just on stage enjoying their own noise and showing off instead of trying to really connect or say anything that anyone else would want to hear.

    I also remember an excellent — and very long and rambling — interview with EVH from the late 70s where he described an equally brilliant prog band that was opening for VH at the time. He said he was in tears listening to them since they were so good, and he was also quaking at the idea of having to follow them.

    He was surprised when they pretty much bombed, but concluded that they were trying too much off-beat stuff that “sounds like mistakes” to a typical audience. He could appreciate it “since I’m a musician” as he said, but most people simply won’t hear it. (Even I’ve toned down some dissonant bits of pieces I’ve played for people, years ago, depending on who was listening.)

    His conclusion was that it was a huge mistake to get up there and play as if you are above your audience, and are there to educate them from your higher vantage point. They resent it. You can’t “lift someone up to your level” without looking DOWN on them, and people dislike that, as they should.

    If you like music, he said, go ahead and play it for yourself and your friends, but once you try to get in the face of a general audience, you have to take their sensibilities into account. Not selling out or “dumbing down,” just being aware that they didn’t pay good money to see you up there assuming you’re better than they are. You can’t treat your music as if you’re bringing trousers and bibles to the natives.

    Playing for other musicians is a crutch. I should know, I used it for years. It can be nice, and you can stretch the boundaries a bit more when you presume some background in your audience, but you can’t rely on it even most of the time. It’s a happy little cozy thing you do with friends, not how you earn your bread and beer. I never got paid; I could afford to do it. But if I’d wanted to pursue a real audience, I couldn’t stay like that.

  8. Robert Berger says

    If the Linberg piece in question proves that the NY Phil. is “40 years behind”, a questionable premise at best, then what kind of music should the orchestra play to be up to date ?

    So far EXPO is the only piece of I have heard, so I’ll have to hear more of his music before I can pass judgement on it. I’d like to hear more.

    It seems that the Philharmonic, like orchestras in general today,is damed if it does, and damned if it doesn’t. No matter what it plays, some one will complain about its programming and make sweeping claims about it supposedly “Not being part of New York’s intellectual life”, a grossly unfair accusation made by the late Virgil Thomson nearly 70 years ago which has defamed the orchestra ever since and a canard which has been blindly accepted by too many critics and commentators .

    In effect, Thomson was saying that the orchestra could only be part of New York’s “intellectual life”(whatever that is), if it played music he happened to like.

    How arrogant and presumptuous ! If the NY Phil. plays something by Carter or Boulez etc, many in the audience will be horrified and say they would rather be waterboarded than hear this horrible modern stuff. They want their Beethoven, Brahms and Tchaikovsky the way some children need their security blankets.

    If the orchestra plays are more accessible work by a more conservative composer, critics and composers smash it for pandering to audiences with “easy listening”.

    And the critics are always accusing the orchestra of playing nothing but the same old warhorses despite the fact that it plays much more new music than most of the world’s oother orchestras ! Oh well, you can’t win for losing.

  9. says

    A serious question, and I ask because I enjoyed Gilbert’s premiere NY Philharmonic concert a few weeks ago, blogged about it and the harsh reaction of commentors on Anthony Tommasini’s praiseworthy New York Times review, and am excited about his likely future programming.

    Do you think he will be actively programming contemporary works from the alternative traditions you mention, as well as other contemporary composers like Abels, Kernis, Adès, Daugherty, Léon, Perkinson, and so forth?

    Will this ever be a possibility, or should we expect that the potential changes in the Philharmonic’s repertoire will mirror those of the Boston Symphony Orchestra under Levine, which at the very least has started to program works by the likes of Boulez, Carter, Babbitt, and others? If he were to try either route, or some combination of the two, would the Philharmonic’s longtime subscribers revolt? After Lindberg, do you think the Philharmonic might find a composer-in-residence whose perspective isn’t stuck in the musical aesthetic wars of the 1960s-1970s academy?

    I also want to point out that the Metropolitan Opera, for all the controversy over the new direction of Tosca, is not programming a single opera written since the 1920s. This strikes me as really sad, but it’s true also of the Lyric Opera of Chicago, which has also gone ultraconservative. It’s 2009, not 1959.

    (BTW, I’m not saying no more Mozart, Brahms, Schubert, Mendelssohn, Chopin, Brückner, Tchaikovsky, etc., but there’s a lot of great music since 1918….)