Continuing what I started in my last post.
3, Recent history, art and music.
Music. Atonal composers started dominating composition — in prestige, grant-worthiness, faculty hiring, and, retrospectively, in the way classical music history has been written — sometime in the 1950s. (Though we know they didn’t dominate — outside the new music ghetto — in the number of performances they got, or didn’t get.) (I’d also say that this is a US-centric description. The atonal composers seemed also to lead in prestige in Europe, but I don’t know whether they lead in getting grants or in getting hired for university jobs, or even whether those things were as important in Europe and elsewhere as they were in the US.)
By the time I went to graduate school, in the early ’70s, that dominance was complete. (As has been written about, especially by aggrieved post-atonal composers, over and over and over again.) And yes, there were composers like George Crumb who broke the atonal mold but were celebrated in prestige circles anyway, but they were the exception.
And then, inevitably. came change. Two prominent atonalists — George Rochberg and David Del Tredici — broke away from atonality. Both wrote tonal, expressive, even romantic scores. Rochberg even said he did it because, after the death of his son, the 12-tone music he’d been writing didn’t feel expressive enough.
This unleashed a return to tonality that many composers embraced. But we also had minimalism, which arose outside the mainstream compositional world, in a downtown music scene in New York that was closely tied to the visual art world. Art audiences were a lot friendlier to Steve Reich and Philip Glass than classical music audiences were. The composition establishment derided minimalism, as I well remember even from the ’80s, when Glass and Reich started to cross over into mainstream classical venues. (“Philip Glass only writes his music to make money!” “How do you know that?” “Just listen to it! It’s cheap and tawdry.” I had that conversation numerous times, with people from the mainstream — atonal — composition world.)
The minimalists also had something new to contemporary classical music — an avid audience.
And then, after minimalism, we’ve had at least two generations of alt-classical music. In New York terms, you could define one by Bang on a Can (and maybe especially by the music that the Bang on a Can All-Stars play, even more than the music by the three Bang on a Can composers, David Lang, Julia Wolfe, and Michael Gordon). And you could define (or, better, typify) the other by naming Nico Muhly and the composers who founded New Amsterdam records. And alt-classical work, like minimalism before it, has an audience outside the classical music world.
This is all very simplified, of course. But central to the entire historical sweep here — new tonal music, minimalism, alt-classical — is a return to tonal harmony and a return to a steady rhythmic pulse. And, following those two developments, an opening toward popular culture and, as part of that, pop music (which couldn’t have happened without first opening the door to triads and regular rhythms). And a meeting of the musical minds between classical composers and people in indie rock bands. (Which probably fulfills the long dance of high art and popular culture drawing closer together, as Bernard Gendron so evocatively chronicles in his book Between Montmartre and the Mudd Club: Popular Music and the Avant-Garde, covering what happened from the 19th century to the 1980s).
And now look at visual art. (Again I’ll of course simplify.) In the ’50s, abstract expressionist painting dominated. (But, parenthetically, there didn’t seem to be much link between the painters and the atonal composers. Cage and Feldman would have been the composers closest to these painters, I think, to the extent that they paid attention to classical music at all. Jackson Pollock was in love with jazz, and fueled himself with it while he painted.)
And then, essentially in parallel to developments in music, we had a return to realism. And minimalism. And then an explosion into where we are now, an art world in which just about anything goes, where artists seem just as likely to create constructions and installations and videos as to paint pictures or make sculptures, and where popular culture suffuses new art.
But look at the crucial difference between what happened in music, and what happened in visual art. In music, new composers (in Europe, anyway) still write in the old modernist styles. Important classical music institutions still promote those styles. And sometimes, important people talk as if change had never happened!
That was why I was amazed at Magnus Lindberg, who talked at a New York Philharmonic concert about starting to compose with triads, without a word to acknowledge that a generation of composers had done that before him. Modernist music is to some degree a style of the present — and so much so that composers like Lindberg (he’s not the only one who’s talked this way, in the past generation) can talk and compose as if the return to tonality, minimalism, and the alt-classical explosion never even existed. Of course he knows they exist. But he and others will talk sometimes as if these other things were off on the side somewhere, not really mattering.
That would never happen in visual art. Contemporart art shows, whether in galleries or musuems, tend to be (both individually and taken all together) a riot of genuinely contemporary styles. If you went to any recent Whitney Biennial (the every other year show in which the Whitney Museum tries to define what’s going on in contemporary art), you wouldn’t see any large amount of work that evokes the abstract expressionists. Instead, you see installations, videos, conceptual stuff, surprises, pop culture references, some of it not successful at all, of course (and why would we expect it to be?), but all of it representing some plausible vision of where the current art world really is. (Which doesn’t mean that some people in the art world don’t howl with rage at what’s emphasized or deemphasized, but that all happens within a totally contemporary framework.)
So — art and music. Similar evolutions, in the last generation. But a very different picture presented to the world at large. Mainstream art institutions embrace the places contemporary art has gone. Mainstream classical music institutions don’t equally embrace the places contemporary music has gone, but to a great degree stick to what contemporary music used to be.
You think this doesn’t make a difference in how the outside world looks at contemporary art, versus contemporary classical music?
Note, though, that the art world has always been ahead of the classical music world. One of New York’s top art museums is — obviously — the Museum of Modern Art. Do we have a Modern Music Orchestra, with equivalent status? (Sound of wry laughter.)
I’ve seen lines around the block for a Jackson Pollock show at MOMA. But not, obviously, for the Stockhausen retrospective the New York Philharmonic somehow never gets around to. Lincoln Center did do well with a Golijov retrospective, which surely is the exception that proves my rule. Because Golijov writes music in a fully contemporary style, the kind of style that, generally speaking, is the current point that the evolution of classical music has gotten to. If the classical music world were like the art world, work like his would be roughly at the center of our understanding of contemporary music.
(Which wouldn’t exclude attention to older styles. But I’ll go into that in my next and final
(And not that the art world isn’t free of struggle. Are films, for instance, given the internal prestige at MOMA that other kinds of visual art are? I’ve heard that they aren’t.)
4. Museums. Museums are sometimes evoked, in the classical music world, as examples of an alleged conservatism that shows the classical world in a favorable light. See? It’s not just us. Museums do it, too.
As if they concentrated on art from the past.
But they don’t. Maybe, of course, most people who go to the Metropolitan Museum in New York want to see the impressionists, or Egyptian art, or suits of armor. But once when I went to their website, here’s what they were advertising:
A Raphael show
A Jeff Koons show (contemporary art, highly erotic, verging — as I believe the artist would be the first to suggest — on soft porn)
A Costume Collection show, tracing the influence of superhero costumes on fashion.
Show me where in the classical music world we’d see a major large institution featuring anything like this assortment (two contemporary shows versus one show of old art, and the contemporary shows entering the pop culture arena, far from the old ideas of high art that we still tend to find in mainstream contemporary classical music).
On the day I’m writing this, the Met’s home page offers — as “Today’s Featured Work of Art” — a photograph, showing a Mexican man “moments before his execution.” Click the “enter [the site] here” link, and you find yourself on a page featuring three shows, “American Stories: Paintings of Everyday Life, 1765-1915,” “Art of the Samurai,” and “Looking In: Robert Frank’s The Americans,” which celebrates Frank’s photos taken 50 years ago on a road trip through the US.
Show me, once more, how this resembles anything a bigtime classical music institution would be likely to feature on its website.
Next (among other things): How if you want to find an audience for Webern and Matthias Pintscher, you should play them for the alt-classical audience. Which you can’t attract without doing large chunks of alt-classical music.