Left behind

I’m going to write again about new music and orchestras, because — in the present state of these discussions — it’s easy for me to be misunderstood. This isn’t my fault, or the fault of the people who misunderstand me. It’s more, I think, because the discussion is very new, and the context I mean to put it in is (naturally!) more familiar to me than to others.

So no blame to anyone here. I’ll try to explain why (at least as I see it) I’m not simply voicing a personal preference when I say that orchestras should do much more alt-classical new music, and why I’m also not saying (when I note that this music has a large actual and potential audience) that popularity should be the guide to what orchestras program.

The overall problem, I think, is that the situation of new music in the classical music world is very odd — and, maybe, more than odd. Unnatural, distorted, and unhealthy, especially when we compare it to the role new work plays in other arts. But at the same time, this situation is so familiar to many of us that we don’t easily see through it, or beyond it. I was that way myself, for many years, and I couldn’t say how, exactly, I began seeing things from another perspective.

Which, I’ll hasten to say, everyone is free to disagree with. But I’ll observe that, generally, from outside the classical music world, classical music and the various ways it functions don’t look much like the way they look inside our world. And that we can learn a lot from taking both perspectives seriously.

So — new classical music. We think of it, often, as an honorable, important, even crucial enterprise, something we have to foster, especially since it has only an uneasy home at most mainstream classical performances. And we might also feel — understandably — that new music can be compared to new work in other arts.

But in that last thought, I think that we’re not quite right. To show why, let me show some snapshots from its history.

Modernist music and modernism in the other arts. Atonal music developed around the same time as abstract painting, and in fact two great pioneers in both fields — Schoenberg in music, Kandinsky in painting — were close friends and artistic allies. Modernist composers have also made connections to literary modernism, Boulez, for instance, in his prominent settings of Mallarmé (who we might call an abstract poet, because in his poems he doesn’t name tangible objects or situations).

And Elliott Carter has taken inspiration from Joyce, from the fleeting play of consciousness in both Ulysses and Finnegans Wake.

But there’s a big difference between Carter and Joyce, and in fact between Joyce and just about any modernist composer you can name. Joyce, no matter how radical his writing might be — and Finnegans Wake is surely as impenetrable for most readers as Carter’s music is for most listeners, if not more so — is always grounded in everyday culture. It’s not enough to say that his books are filled with references to popular songs, advertisements, bars, food, sex, and the ordinary things of life. These things are the soil they grow from. They’re suffused with everyday things.

Which doesn’t happen in Carter, or Boulez, or even in someone looser and more playful like Berio. You won’t find these composers quoting popular songs. Carter may love the floating, darting stream of consciousness in Joyce, but at least in his music, he gives no sign that his consciousness darts to the places Joyce’s fleeting thoughts go to. Which restricts the cultural resonance of his music (same for many other modernist composers), and may help explain why this music hasn’t caught on even with artists and intellectuals, let alone with a more general audience. (And in fact that’s the biggest problem with modernist new music, that it doesn’t have an audience among non-music people who have a deep love of contemporary art, or who are artists themselves.)

Modernist music in Paris, c. 1960. This is an important, even cherished time for people who support modernist classical music, because it’s the time when Boulez was catching fire. But who, exactly, did he catch fire with? This isn’t a question we often ask about this kind of music, maybe because — and I’m not being cynical here, just (I hope) factual — it hasn’t had much audience, and the so the whole subject of an audience might be better avoided. The music is presumed to have intrinsic value, and the audience can come later.

But Boulez, in Paris, c. 1960, didn’t have much audience, as far as I know. He had a small group of glittering supporters, whom he carefully cultivated (especially those with money). And clearly his cultivation worked. He developed a major reputation as a composer, and later, as we know, got the French government to stake him to an entire new music institution, IRCAM.

He also, back in those days, was at least briefly involved in an intellectual controversy over serialism, whose linguistic claims — claims that serial procedures could be looked on as a language — were derided by Claude Levi-Strauss.

But the modernist energy in Paris at that time came from film, from Truffaut and Godard. This is what artistic and intellectual people paid attention to, and were inspired by. I won’t make claims to my own artistic or intellectual status, but the same was true of me at that time, and in the years just afterward. From the fall of 1961 on, I was at college, and art films — which I’d started going to in high school — became a serious part of my life.

Boulez actually visited my school (and I even met him), but his music was nowhere on my horizon, even though I cared more about music than anything else, and ignored my coursework for it. Art films, though — Antonioni and Fellini as well as Truffaut and Godard — touched me very deeply. They resonated with who I thought I was, and what I thought the world was. Or rather they both reflected my ideas on these things, and taught me new ones. This was the art that, to draw on Joyce’s famous phrase from Portrait of an Artist, seemed to be forging the uncreated conscience of whatever I thought my race was.

And when I look back at that era now, it seems transparently obvious that these films — and my favorite now is Godard — were the most crucial art of their time, and certainly far more central than music. They created a revolution in film, and were part of a developing revolution in consciousness. Their influence was gigantic. They created — as Mark Harris documents in his indispensable book (indispensable to anyone who wants to understand how our culture got where it is now) Pictures at a Revolution — a revolution in Hollywood, and if we now have art-house films and can expect to see even major studio films that can be taken seriously intellectually and artistically, it’s because of these films which mattered so much more to the culture at large than Boulez (I fear) ever will.

Boulez likes to talk about the need for a new musical language, to express new emotions. (This is part of his reason for thinking tonal music written in our time can be nothing more than nostalgic.) But he never, to my knowledge, says what those new emotions are. Or showed us in any way (again as far as I know) how his music could guide us through new conditions of life, or even reflect those conditions.

Godard, in film after film, named what the new emotions (and new thoughts, and new life situations) of that time were, and explored them in depth. Another reason why those films — which are often difficult for many people to take (look at the abstract, and in many ways unyielding formalistic dance of La Chinoise, for instance) — were widely watched, in spite of their difficulty. And why they had an importance, in the development of the culture of their time, that Boulez could never claim.

Do you see where I’m going with this? Modernist composition (and, as it gained influence, just about all

of the most prestigious new classical music) somehow got divorced from the culture of its time, even from the advanced artistic culture that was going on in other fields. Or in other words it got left behind. In effect, it built itself a walled community, and the classical music world has suffered from this ever since.

More in my next post. (What I’m writing here builds on what I said in my post about alt-classical composers at the Chicago Symphony and elaborates on a response I posted to a thoughtful comment someone in the Chicago Symphony made.)

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  1. D Tchil says

    Making the connection with painting and visual art might be more pewrtinent. The cubists and Picasso, for example, breaking down form into fragment and building again. The Expressionists, and the Futrurists, with other ideas on how modern life could shape modern art. Schoenberg painted, Boulez adores Paul Klee.

    But the real problem is the Boulanger/ Messiaen dichotomy. Boulanger was obsessed with Stravinsky, so much so she couldn’t take his later work. She also a very controlling person, cutting anyone who didn’t toe the line. But Boulanger’s take on things has come to dominate the English speaking world because most of her students were American or English and so her views pass on, unquestioned. Now it’s Alex Ross people read but not long ago, Paul Griffiths had a different, more European approach. Griffiths knew Messiaen and his lasting influence on European music.

  2. Eric L says

    D Tchil: agreed.

    Personally, I find the Boulanger influence in the US highly problematic–to a certain extent, leaking into music theory pedagogy and the way music theory is taught.

    While her emphasis on technique–Bachian harmony, strict counterpoint, classical orchestration etc.–is a good thing, it has led to a lot of rather harmonically gray and formally-stale music in the US. Especially in certain east coast conservatories.

    While the truly inspired (Copland, Carter, Glass) were able to take what they needed from her and create music that’s (if not universally loved) at least very personal and unique. Most of her other students tended to write a lot of really bad Stravinsky-like music, esp of the neo-classical kind. They all absorbed the surface technique, to the detriment of any genuine musical, textural, emotional or harmonic invention. Gray music through and through. Like Kyle Gann is happy to note: Klein-misters, with each generation being a watered-down copy of their teachers.

    Of course, this is probably true with any artistic, linage-based passing down of knowledge. The Messiaen school has the same problem. Now, you have lots of composers in Europe writing spectral-ish music…obsessed with lots of bright, pretty sounds to the detriment of form, drama, narrative. 12 minutes of a bell-like chord does not good music make. (Sorry for the Yoda-esque speech…watching lots of Frank Oz these days). The same can be said of Schoenberg. Schoenberg clones copied his 12-tone technique, without absorbing his dramatic, developmental abilities. (Again, the exceptional (Webern, Cage) add something new, or take away what they need). Greg, I think this was/is precisely Boulez’s problem. He fetishized the technique…

    Again, it’s not always the teacher’s fault. Babbitt gladly helped Sondheim with the music he loved, and never pushed Sondheim towards atonality. In fact, I think he refused to do so even when Sondheim asked. Instead, they looked at Beethoven scores and talked about show tunes. I think Ravel had it exactly right. Even though the story may be apocryphal, the famous story of Gershwin asking Ravel for lessons is striking; Ravel supposedly declined and said Gershwin would simply end up being a second-rate Ravel. Why be that when you can be a first-rate Gershwin?

    Too many composers think they just need to pick a surface ‘sound’ and that gives them their voice. Alas, it’s not that easy. Unfortunately, we run into a strange dilemma: a bad watered-down composer as teacher only encourages the next generation to be even more watered down. But too strong a personality in a teacher-Messiaen, Stockhausen, Boulanger and you run into hero-worship among students. Perhaps it’s truly only the rebels or autodidacts: Adams (from Kirchner), Reich (from Persichetti and Berio), Cage (from Schoenberg), Feldman and Takemitsu (both basically self-taught) etc. who produce interesting music. Or at least those who study with two people on completely opposite ends of the spectrum: maybe Lachenmann and David Lang for example? That way, it’ll force you to make the difficult choice: what kind of music do I want to write?

    Alas, most universities tend to hire more composers of a similar pedigree, style for political reasons and students are then tempted to apply for more of the same in grad school, festivals etc. Ex. You hardly see the Juilliard grads attending the European festivals, while it’s always the Yalies at Bang on a Can. It would be much healthier for people to step out of their comfort zone and explore a bit.

    I’ve been thinking about all this quite a bit lately, and Greg, I’m getting the feeling that the whole teacher-student, mentor-pupil dynamic in Classical music (both in composition AND performance practice) itself is causing much of the problems in Classical music.

    Hi, Eric. I suspect that much of what you say here could be generalized, to be about life in general. People get stuck in various ways, so often by grabbing on to something they love and ignoring too much else. And one way to do that, of course, is to hold onto the past.

    Thus the problem with teachers. When things are stable, they pass on both tradition and practical knowledge, both being essential for their students to have. In times of change, the tradition may be stifling, and the knowledge no longer practical. (I remember, at a private meeting I attended at a leading music school, an important figure in the classical music biz explaining that no one could give a recital without spending $$ for advertising, printing flyers and programs, and the like. We had to explain to her how you can promote a concert online for nothing, and print the programs at home.)

    Music schools that try to change can often find that senior faculty members are an obstacle. But then I’m sure that something equivalent is true in other changing fields as well.

  3. Ryan Howard says

    Greg, I think you raise an interesting point about art’s popularity vis a vis its relationship with popular culture, though it seems to me this has to be a limited way of explaining things. The most obvious counterexample to your hypothesis is abstract expressionism, which similarly lacks reference points to everyday culture, yet which (in the work of Pollock, Rothko, Guston, Motherwell et al.) seems to have gained wider acceptance than modernist music. Examining the reasons why this is so (and they are complex, it seems to me) might help to shed more light on modernist music’s cultural situation, both past and present-day.

    I’m not sure

    i said that popularity in art was directly related to traits of popular culture that show up in it. I think that’s been true in the past generation, as visual art evolved in that direction and new classical music — in its most widely prestigious official forms — didn’t. But that’s something I’ll address in the next segment of my screed.

  4. says

    Somewhere along the line, I picked up the idea that painting is naturally material while music is naturally abstract. If this is to be believed, visual arts like painting would have the problem of tempting emotion out of the observer while music would have the problem of getting beyond vague ideas. If someone, who doesn’t care much, looks at a still life, they see an apple and shrug. If this same person listens to John Cage’s Water Walk, they will probably hear some noise and shrug again. Both may have something to offer for those who really want to get into it but for a general audience, neither really addresses the faults of their art form enough to grab someone’s attention. I could be forming a false dichotomy but this seems in line with what’s being said here.

    That being said, it seems strange that Kandinsky and Schoenberg appeared to think that their art forms both had the same issue. Expressionism makes sense if the problem is that your art doesn’t express much. The Romantic era, however, aimed at becoming more and more literal. Tone poems developed in order to inject a story into something that people could previously only take as, “This feels nice,” or, “This feels ugly.” Somehow, Schoenberg showed up at the end of this movement and decided that there was entirely too much story in music and it needed to be taken back to its abstract roots, which, if music is naturally abstract, could never be removed to begin with. Maybe this wasn’t his intent, but that’s the impression his followers leave me with.

    Eric L: I think one needs to be careful about how much blame can be attributed to teacher-student relationships. Most students, in any art, are likely to produce watered-down versions of what they learned from their teachers, which is why the vast majority of artists never make it. It takes a special kind of person to create something new and unique or at least innovative. Students may not be helped by a teacher who demands that they stick to the rules of Fux counterpoint but, even when the teacher, like Messiaen, spends all their time trying to nurture whatever individuality each student starts into a new, personal path, they’re still more likely to copy than to create.

    This is a venerable discussion, but the notion that music is naturally abstract would have amazed musicians in past centuries. Just think of all the pictorial gestures in music by any number of composers. Not to mention pieces that are entirely pictorial. Even by Schoenberg (the String Trio, generally accepted to be a chronicle of illness and recovery, including a graphic depiction of an injection into Schoenberg’s spine).

    You could just as well say that painting is essentially abstract, because the same design elements we find in abstract painting are present — and powerful — in pictorial painting, too.

    The notion of music being ineffable — expressing the inexpressible — did rise up in the 19th century. But it would be hard to find a 19th century composer whose work would show the composer wholly embraced that idea. Look at Wagner, for the most obvious example. Just about every bar in his operas pictures something we can name, either an emotion or something physical, and very often something physical.

    Opera would be impossible, I think, if music were essentially abstract. But that’s just my opinion. And it all hinges on what anyone might think “essentially” means.

  5. says

    Sorry to immediately post a second comment but Ryan Howard’s post popped up while I was typing and I can’t help but to counter his counter.

    While expressionism avoids depicting anything tangible, it still depicts something tangible. Not only do you have colors and lines but, this is true for me at least, it’s an automatic reaction to start finding real objects in these paintings. When I look at something by Gorky, I immediately start seeing faces and birds and all sorts of things and have to consciously stop myself from doing this. Just as music can’t help but maintain an abstract base, painting can’t fully remove its materialism.

  6. Eric L says

    Josh: To some extent I definitely agree, which is why I brought up the Babbitt/Sondheim example. And Messiaen certainly nurtured a number of extraordinarily students–from Boulez and Stockhausen to Grisey and even Quincy Jones. Ligeti’s list of students are equally impressive. But that’s also precisely the problem. Good composition teachers are probably even rarer than good composers, and the bad dominate. And while bad composers really don’t do any harm to any one else, bad composition teachers DO hurt other people.

    So I’m not against having teachers teach composition, I’m just saying perhaps we need to rethink HOW it’s taught…i.e. as to limit the amount of bad influence ONE teacher can have on a student. To a large extent, it’s a cultural thing and I’m not sure if there is really a solution. Or at least an obvious one. But then again, interesting, worthwhile problems never do have magic-bullet solutions. :)

    Ryan: In addition to Josh’s idea that we are inherently primed to see visual patterns (a psychologically/experimentally-attested human tendency), I think a part of it also has to do with how the visual arts are presented. When a museum puts on an exhibit with (let’s say) Rothko’s work, there are maybe 3-4 (at most) ways it’s done.

    1) As part of a single-artist retrospective,

    2) As part of a movement/artistic style exhibit, or

    (related to number two) 3) As a piece (or several pieces) that’s part of a themed (other than style) exhibit or,

    4)a part of an exhibit of ‘favorite pieces’ by some superstar artist/curator on his/her influences

    In other words, there’s always some context a piece is in. There are always other related pieces to compare any piece in the exhibit.

    This is almost always never the case with orchestras playing new music. It’s usually a single piece, unfamiliar, out of any meaningful context or narrative stuck between two equally unrelated pieces. When conductors do try to program thematically, the theme is either

    1) so childish/boring as to be pointless (my favorite: The Seasons!)


    2) So abstruse as to being meaningless to the audience, both new comers and seasoned subscribers.

    There are exceptions: MTT’s American Mavericks, the Minimalism Jukebox at LAPhil, and their new Left Coast festival all were and are promising and exciting.

    If anything, conductors need and should be required to take some courses on creative programming/curating.

  7. Ian says

    I know we disagree on the alt-classical thing, Greg, but I really enjoy reading your longer articles.

    My field is opera, not orchestral, but I think the drift of modernism away from the culture at large is something that seriously affected the development of a repertoire in the second half of the 20th century. As you hint in your posting, the language of modernism rarely works on the operatic stage because its not sympathetic to vocal lines. With a few very notable exceptions (hello, Berg) I can think of few works which have entered the repertoire, and few which are performed at all outside Germany. That said, composers like Unsuk Chin have taken some of the tools of modernism and created wonderful operas which not only have a unique voice but work on the stage.

    The flipside of this of course is you end up with what has passed for the contemporary American operatic repertoire- soupy ‘accessible’ Puccini Lite works adapted from a Cliff Notes of a Great American Novel (or, increasingly, Great American Film) which make no case on why it needs to be adapted to the opera stage. And it still loses a bomb of money. This soupiness seems heavily influenced by contemporary film scores- I dread the eventual James Horner opera with every fibre of my being- and thus a little more divorce from the contemporary culture seems necessary.

    So I’m not sure how the balance between “positive” and “negative” influences on contemporary repertoire (apologies for the sloppy terminology but I can’t think of any other way to put it) can be evened out except through trial and error even if means I have to one day sit through A Catcher in the Rye by James Horner.

    Very nicely put. I might go back, in response, to something I said in reply to another comment, that it’s important to join music with an audience that wants to hear it. If we’re producing new operas for the generalized opera audience, it’s not surprising that we go in a conservative, predictable direction, because those operas often work with that audience. Take a familiar novel or movie, adapt it as an opera, let the audience read the piece in supertitles as it’s performed, and if the music makes even vaguely the right kind of noises, you might have a hit.

    But if you want something really new and vital, maybe the existing audience isn’t the audience to perform for. Although John Corigilaino’s “Ghosts of Versailles” strikes me as a successful piece that the opera audience liked. But the most exciting new opera I think I’ve heard is Louis Andriessen’s “Rosa,” which is neither modernist nor conventional, and seemed to be a big hit in the Netherlands when it was premiered. But I doubt we’ll ever see it in an opera house here. Too radical, too odd, too much nudity, too much difficulty finding singers fluent in both operatic and jazz singing. But such vitality! And such fabulous music.

  8. says

    Been thinking about your comment about Boulez’s need to create a new language in order to express new emotions and that you feel that the art films of the early 60s- Godard etc., were able to achieve this and influence us for some time to come. One thing that’s interesting is that all of these artists were creating in a post-war context and (maybe this is an old argument to you) were trying to find indeed a new language to express their emotional reaction to the revealed horror’s of that period. I think it often takes some time to absorb and then create in response to something and to me the music of the late fifties and 60’s reflected in the abstract, a response to the tragedy of World War II in Europe. Easier to absorb in the visual world of film and story telling then in the abstract where the emotions are direct and raw. So it wasn’t much fun to listen to, but it is surely interesting to perform (as I have often) because you do experience a deep response and way to understand the period.

    The reaction of European art to the horrors of the war has been much talked about, and certainly has been brought up to help explain the rise of serial music. Those composers wanted a radical break with the past. Hovering over much of this is Adorno’s famous question, about how it could be possible to write poetry after Auschwitz. Writing poetry (and music, and painting paintings) without familiar — equals “sentimental” — content, without trying overtly to react to the horrors, seemed to be one way forward, and we should respect that.

    The art films I’m talking about came from a later era, though (eras are short in modern life!). They tend to deal with the renewed prosperity of the later ’50s and the early ’60s, with the developing sexual revolution, with the hollowness of materialistic life in the midst of prosperity (one of Antonioni’s big subjects likewise the subject of “La dolce vita.” Godard also wrestles, in a European way that doesn’t translate easily to the US, with the role of the traditional left, with whether Marxist thinking can help bring about a revolution in the ways Marxists believed in earlier. Thus his fascination with Maoism and the new left — which, given the explosions in Paris in 1968 — and the Bader-Meinhof terrorist left-wing gang in Germany — was quite a reasonable thing to get preoccupied with, in that context, however foreign it may seem to Americans now.

    These films, in other words, had moved on from reacting to the horrors of war (and the destruction visible in so much of Europe, from London to Berlin, not to mention the scarcities of the immediate postwar years). They dealt with the new emotions that arose from postwar prosperity.

  9. Ritta Bardakjian says

    It seems to me that while other forms of art , be it film, paintings, architect,design,poetry etc. developed one sensed that they still remained n important element that one sensed which is form. My belief is that in music sound became form and the structure of a composition by modern composer like Stockhausen, Boulez and others remained subordinate. What was so crucial in music of the past and what was so much an integral part of composers thinking was form for without it a piece is not worth anything.

    Modern music became benign because it negated form and composers mission was to avoid any cohesive attempt to create a structure. Stravinsky, even though was shocking initially , managed to succeed in the history because he was more interested in the larger structure rather than the “chance” element.

  10. Ian says

    Rosa! I don’t know the work, but bizarrely that is the second time it has come up today. How extraordinary. Obviously I need to hunt down a recording asap.

    I see your point about connecting audiences to operas although I do stand by that if the staging and story is right, the audiences will come (though perhaps not your traditional operatic audience? this is getting into deeper waters). I wonder if the modernists’ approach to story is actually more of an issue than their musical language. Lulu is hardly a sympathetic vocal line but the story is so gripping it all works as a whole. And its not a fault solely of modernists- the vocal lines in Nixon in China, which I absolutely adore, are treacherous for singers.

    “Take a familiar novel or movie, adapt it as an opera, let the audience read the piece in supertitles as it’s performed, and if the music makes even vaguely the right kind of noises, you might have a hit”- this was absolutely so spot on I may have done a bit of a giggle-snort. I think this was one of the reasons Ades’ Tempest (coincidentally, another one with terrifying vocal writing) was so deservedly successful in that him and Oakes were courageous enough to take ownership of a Shakespeare text and run with it. Britten summed it up best when being criticised for his cuts to Midsummer’s- “the original will survive.”

    And I have managed to go completely off-topic.

    Digressions are essential to life. Often more nourishing than staying on topic.

  11. Eric L says

    Ritta and Ian,

    I think both of you are onto something that’s really rather crucial–i.e. form and story. Music’s all about narrative no matter the style.

    I think there are two fundamental (at the risk of generalizing) problems:

    1) The (misguided) emphasis of surface stylistic battles: i.e 12-tone or spectral, jazz harmonies or tonal, rock rhythms with a steady beat or Nancarrow or Feldman (where no steady beat exists, etc). I can think of music that’s exciting and works in every category. So why the fight? Kind of pointless if you ask me.

    2) The way ‘form’ is taught–especially as an abstract, sectionally-divided entity. Notes and themes fill these sections (take your pick–fugue, multi-movement sonata, da capo aria, variations, suites whatever). Benchmarks must be met! Cadence here, cadence there. Sometimes I wonder why so many concertos composed yesterday still have the cadenza at the end of the first movement. Talk about boringly predictable.

    The real problem of course, is that it’s neither about the surface sounds or ‘form’ but narrative and drama and pacing and timing. Why does a sound sound? How do you subvert expectations? How do you surprise your listener? How do you create an atmosphere for a certain amount of time without it becoming monotonous? Of course, tonal harmony is very much tied to drama and expectations, as is music we analyze to be in sonata form–at least before it became prescriptive. It was a way to drive forward a narrative; pacing is what makes Wagner so magical–radical harmony is there to help the pacing, not to be adored as a sound object. The smooth yet unpredictable entrances and changes in rhythmic drive in Music for 18 is what is thrilling. Music is time-based; it’s not sculpture.

    Badly tonal music is terrible, but bad modernist music is worse, because tonality itself implies some form of tension-release, even if it’s poorly timed. There is still drama. Atonality doesn’t have that inherent logic built in (nor does spectral music) so you really have to have impeccable sense of drama to make non-functional sounds/harmonies work in narrative. You don’t have a safety net.

    I wonder if a good stand-up comedian would be a better composer sometimes: impeccable timing with a sense of humor. Two things lots of contemporary composers don’t seem to possess (again…not all…just a lot).

    On a related note, I know a pianist with a serious concert career who’s taken acting classes for three years, precisely to help him project the flow and narrative of music.

  12. says

    A fascinating discussion to follow! I will not pretend for an instant to be an expert in these fields, and having only a passing acquaintance with many of the works and composers mentioned, but I am constantly involved in new ‘classical’ music [now there’s and oxymoron! Surely there is a better term?]

    The essential point surely is that music either works or it doesn’t and one factor working in the former situation’s favour is how well educated a listener is. By this I don’t necessarily mean formal education through a ‘system’. Audiences can be educated through media interviews and articles, programme notes, recordings and broadcasts, but primarily and essentially through the programming support of performance organisations.

    I am intrigued also, that so many of the works and composers referred to are from quite a while ago. One of the features of ‘new’ music is that it is ‘new’. It is important that people gain a perception that music is not a retrospective or archival art form, but rather a living thing that is continually evolving and responsive: a means of expressing creatively things which cannot be expressed or shared in any other way?

    A not uncommon experience here in New Zealand is for ‘unaccustomed’ audiences to be far more open, receptive and appreciative of new ‘classical’ music. Perhaps with less preconceptions and ‘baggage’ they can hear the music more clearly and allow it to convey what it is the composer is trying to say. For many, it is interesting Perhaps we also have an advantage: as a relatively ‘young’ country, with an intriguing Pacific/Asian/European cultural mixup and isolated geographically our composers have been free-ish from the ‘schools of thought’ that some of you seem to be suggesting have restricted or held back the development of new ‘classical’ music.

    The biggest challenge for us at SOUNZ is in helping audiences in other countries to find this rich source of the audio arts: a task now made more achievable in a digital age with a website that allows people anywhere to discover and access a whole new world of music by New Zealand composers. Having audio and score samples online as well as many score and audio files that can be purchased by download, promsise to ensure that despite being antipodean, these musical works created in New Zealand are being heard around the world.

  13. Ed McKeon says

    I appreciate where you’re coming from, but you have to be careful about the facts.

    “Which doesn’t happen in Carter, or Boulez, or even in someone looser and more playful like Berio. You won’t find these composers quoting popular songs.” Presumably Berio’s arrangements of Beatles songs, or his use of Sicilian street songs in ‘Naturale’, or the Folksongs don’t count? On the ‘pop side of the equation you could add the old canard about Stockhausen appearing on the Sgt Pepper cover as an influence on Epstein at least, though Jefferson Airplane were also interested in his work, at least around the late ’60s. And amongst the telling obits to Kagel last year was a wonderful tribute from our friends at Ipecac.

    “Modernist composition (and, as it gained influence, just about all of the most prestigious new classical music) somehow got divorced from the culture of its time, even from the advanced artistic culture that was going on in other fields.” Well, one of the most illuminating interviews I’ve read with Boulez was made by the leading art curator Hans Ulrich Obrist with film-maker and artist Philippe Parreno and published in ‘Sound Unbound’ edited by DJ Spooky. And wasn’t it DJ Spooky, incidentally, who collaborated with Xenakis on one of his last recordings, of Kraanerg?

    These counter-examples don’t so much prove the rule as much as bend it. I don’t think you can throw Carter, Boulez and Berio in the same pot labelled ‘modernist composition’, let alone add in Stockhausen, Ligeti, Nono, Kagel et al. Their practice – and histories – are too diverse and contingent. Taking Taruskin’s term of ‘classicising’ music – music that seeks / claims classic status – and contrasting with composers / works that are more destabilising might be more productive and certainly helps to make connections across artistic disciplines.