Left behind (2)

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.

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  1. says

    So which do you think the classical world needs more: more major orchestras playing contemporary ‘classical’* music, or MoMA-type orchestras to cater to those crowds? I still remember vividly the debacle when the NY Philharmonic played Penderecki’s 2nd Cello Concerto exactly a year ago**, in between the 6th Brandenburg Concerto and Beethoven’s 5th. From what I could tell of the audience, it’s no wonder the drinks line was so long during intermission. I wonder if nearly as much good would come out of, e.g., the Philharmonic continuing to force this stuff on a captive audience, as would come from orchestras which cater to a somewhat different audience.

    *I put ‘classical’ in quotes because I’m not at all convinced that a coherent line can be drawn between what we usually call classical music and a lot of the music of the 20th century.

    **Or suchabouts – it was the night of the Yale-Harvard Game, which is tomorrow, so it must be the same time of year :)

    Quick answer, off the top of my. More than standard orchestras playing new music, we need groups playing up to date new music for the contemporary art audience, and the people who listen to out-there indie rock. MOMA orchestras, as you put it, though these groups can be much more flexible in their instrumentation.

    If the big orchestras want to play any role in the current world, and thrive in the future, they should start doing the same thing, but for the future health of music itself, it doesn’t matter much whether they do or don’t. For their own health, and for the financial future of their musicians, then it does matter. But I’m willing to take a hard line here, and say that, on the whole, mainstream orchestras haven’t done much for at least 30 years now even to keep up with current musical styles, let alone help music take its natural course of evolving new ones, to fit the evolving culture.

  2. tomoboe says

    Once again, the art vs. music argument. I don’t think this is a valid comparison. You can stroll through a museum, take in the art you like, ignore the art you don’t. You can’t do that with music. Once they close the doors to the concert hall you’re stuck whether you like the music or not. For this reason, musical organizations cannot follow the example of visual arts institutions. Music critics and such would do well to discard this line of reasoning and try to figure out how to get audiences to find their inner adventurousness without relying on methods used by other disciplines.

    And btw, I think the early audiences for Glass and Reich came much more from the dance world than the art world.

    Early audiences for Glass and Reich came generally from the downtown arts world, which included mingling crowds from dance, art, and theater. (Oh, and downtown music, too, which included a lot more than Reich and Glass. Google Tom Johnson, and read his collection of reviews from the time, to see how that was.)

    I was there. Because the visual art world was so much bigger than the modern dance and downtown theater communities, it played a larger role. Read the Glass chapter in John Rockwell’s seminal book “All American Music” to see something about how that worked.

    As for the differences between art and music, fine, I’ve said the same thing many times, and am going to repeat it in my next installment. I agree with you, except — in past generations, and in musical arenas other than the mainstream classical world, what you talk about hasn’t seemed to be a problem. For close to 40 years now (as I’ve had to repeat many times), I’ve seen excited audiences turn out for new music. As they did all through the 18th and 19th centuries, when new music was far more the norm than it is now. These audiences didn’t fidget because they were forced to sit there until the piece finished, instead of walking on, as they might in a gallery. They loved what they heard, Again, I was there. It would be hard, I think, for anyone who was at ’70s performances by Reich and Glass to think the art gallery comparison carried any weight at all. The question here is matching the music to the right audience. Once you do that, people are more than happy to go along with what they hear.

  3. Tamas says

    There is one important point about Lindberg that you don’t mention. When he was a student in Finland, the dominating tradition there was the Sibelius tradition, and the most respected composers were Rautavaara and Sallinen, who both wrote mainly tonal music. So for him, tonal music was the music of the previous generation, not something new and interesting.

    An interesting point. The same was true for American composition students in the 1950s., and for American composers. This was the time, after all, when Copland and Stravinsky started writing 12-tone music.

    So what you’re saying might imply that Finnish music — in the ’70s, when Lindberg was a student — was (very, very roughly speaking) a generation behind developments in the US, and also the rest of Europe. Since young French and German and Italian composers — to name only those three countries — felt the same pull away from tonal writing in the ’50s.

    By the ’70s, and certainly by the ’80s, the pull went the other way, at least in the US. Young composers began to get tired of the atonal style, which seemed stiff and old-fashioned, and started turning back to tonal music, or at least the harmonies of tonal music. (Glass and Reich, obviously, weren’t at that time writing music that much resembled the tonal music of the past, even while they used its chords.)

    So this helps me understand Lindberg. But at some point, shouldn’t he open his eyes and see what’s going on outside Finland? Especially if he’s going to come and take a composing position in the US. And, for God’s sake, especially in NY, which has been a big center of post-atonal composition. Of course, we in the US don’t know nearly enough about European composition (say “spectral music” to a gathering to musically knowledgeable people in the US, and you’ll mostly draw a blank). But still Lindberg, coming here to the US, should have learned more about where things stand here.

  4. Kyle Gann says

    Thanks for this, Greg. Of course you’re utterly and completely correct, and you say it beautifully. I’m tired of trying to say it and being written off as a lunatic, but you have credibility in circles I don’t.

    Coming from you, Kyle, this means a lot. I think you know far more about these things than I do. And some people think I’m a lunatic, too, so maybe we’ll just have to share a padded room in the loony bin. If I do have credibility, let’s see if it translates into any other big institutions trying out the things I suggest.

  5. says

    I have one objection to the comparison. I certainly think lessons can be learned from the visual arts and their institutions. My experience, however underinformed it probably is, doesn’t match this narrative though.

    For me “The Painted Word” was an effective critique, as well as the old saw “imagination without skill equals contemporary art”. I think that in terms of self-referential sterility, and creating works of art for a small, self-inflating “in crowd”, the visual arts can easily give classical music a run for its money. I attended one Whitney Biennial, and though I found a few things interesting there (I still remember Eiko and Koma for example), I certainly did not take in the overall event as a riot of inventive styles that interact porously with popular culture. Rather, it struck me as a parallel universe of a culture that, however many people may walk through, was basically talking to itself. If it took from contemporary culture, it didn’t end up leaving any mark on contemporary culture as a result that I could see.

    I don’t chill out at home with Kirchner and Wuorinen but I would take a concert of their works to a contemporary art show any day. If ideological, at least these guys were serious and writing music for aesthetic goals that they felt strongly about. Maybe I’m just not informed enough, but at a contemporary art show I always feel like I’m looking at gimmicks, tired attempts to court controversy, and self-referential commentaries.

    A friend of mine since diapers is a classically trained painter and our interesting conversations have continued unabated since. He’s very envious of certain aspects of contemporary classical music. There’s a basic standard of craft that is still left. I think it’s well described as follows. Let’s say a Young Concert Artists jury gets together, an eclectic group of classical musicians hearing an even more eclectic group of applicants. While the final winners may not have been agreed upon by everyone, it’s highly likely that they would all agree on who did and did not comport themselves with basic competence in the auditions, even if their interests or specialties were well outside of the jury.

    In visual art, from what my friend and his circle tell me, such a basic standard of craft is completely gone. Art schools in fact are often seeking a return to rigor but with the vanishing of any standards they can’t find solid ground to stand on to begin such a return to rigor. This account always gives me pause. It’s not a road I’d like to see classical music head down. I think it’s a difficult road for a discipline to come back from. I see no danger whatsoever of it right now, and I certainly agree with your thoughts on Golijov. But I think emulating the culture of contemporary visual art might be the fastest way to get there.

    When I make these broad comparisons, there’s always the danger of painting with too broad a brush. (Or doubling the melody line with too many instruments, losing all subtlety in the process.) So forgive me if you thought I was saying everything is right with the visual art world. I guess the same thing happens when I defend contemporary culture in general from unwarranted attacks. If I say that there’s a lot of creativity in the world today — in response to people who say there’s hardly any at all — I certainly don’t mean to imply that all the creativity leads to great work, or that the culture doesn’t also have major problems.

    I haven’t liked the last couple of Whitney Biennials, and in many ways the art world is a very easy target for anyone looking for silliness, pomposity, supposedly deep thoughts that aren’t very deep, and also the lack of craft that you mention (certainly apparent at the last Biennial).

    But it’s also true that the Biennial attracts a wider crowd than mainstream contemporary music concerts (not wider, though, than the Bang on a Can marathons). I think I’m right to say that it’s tucked more deeply into our current culture than mainstream contemporary music concerts are. And in any case, to understand what’s gong on we have to look more widely than our particular taste. To give an example from a very different ballpark (and from something I’ll blog about in the future), I thought Hugo Weisgall’s “Esther” was pretty awful, as an opera, when I saw it at the New York City Opera. But I can’t deny that they produced it wonderfully, that they appeared to be selling huge numbers of tickets, that they had a vibrant Jewish Singles Night going on, on the promenade, the night I went, and generally that the company shows every sign of renewed vitality. Even if I didn’t like the piece, and might in the future quarrel with the company’s artistic direction, if they continued to produce new pieces I didn’t like.

  6. Janis says

    I keep reading this and thinking that there was something going on in society as a whole that was fueling this sort of movement across all boundaries in music. I’ve said it before, but the way you describe the rise of atonality, how it became the Abstract Prestige Music, and how many composers of that sort of avant garde music ended up drifting back into tonal stuff just parallels the whole prog-rock experience almost perfectly, right down to the timing. I think there is a a great deal to be learned from pulling back form classical/art music and asking, “Where else have we seen this sort of evolution occur?”

    Progressive rock — its arrival, how it was received by audiences, who the audience was, the critical reception, and the drift back to tonality that culminated in melodic rock … It’s the exact same thing.

    And again, that makes me wonder what was going on in society at large that caused these two so similar evolutions in two forms of music that were barely on speaking terms with one another. Somehow, there was some subtle message being sent in the world at large that seeped into both worlds of what was considered prestigious, how one presented something to an audience, and what the purpose of art was.

    I’m unfamiliar with movies, dance, books, and the general art world, but it wouldn’t shock me if a similar process wasn’t at work in the same time frame in them as well.

  7. Calder says

    Greg, I really wish that the discussion you were promoting here included less of what amounts to the canard that all of the ‘cool’ kids are writing ‘tonal’ music again, unlike those European squares like Lindberg.

    You imply that Lindberg’s lack of acknowledgment of Bang-on-a-can and other sympathetic composers is somehow a slight against them, that somehow their embracing tonality is so incredibly relevant to the discussion of the evolution of Lindberg’s language that they are tantamount to the elephant in the room.

    The reality is that Lindberg is charting quite a different course than the ‘alt-classical’scene, and just because he is using triads again doesn’t mean he’s coming late to the party. He’s just at another party. Magnus Lindberg is never going to come even close to sounding like David Lang, because they are coming from utterly different aesthetic stances. That’s a good thing, I’m sure you would agree.

    You have–inadvertantly–made it seem for those who did not have the benefit of attending, that Lindberg was discussing rediscovering tonality for himself. Obviously the truth is more complicated. Lindberg has, over many years, developed a personal language that incorporates aspects of spectral, 12-tone, and tonal elements together, and that’s pretty interesting. ‘Returning’ to tonality isn’t the only way to be writing relevant music, and most of the time a composer’s thought process regarding their choices of personal language go much deeper than that. Lindberg has found his own way forward, and I’m sure you are appreciative of how his voice represents another interesting instance of the current landscape.

    I’ve said — maybe not enough — that I’m oversimplifying.

    But to be honest, I don’t find Lindberg all that interesting. His music isn’t bad, purely as music, but as an artistic statement, it leaves me mildly uninterested.

    That’s my own taste, of course, and doesn’t have to be anyone else’s. But I have to say that I’m wary of the “balanced” approach (as someone here called it) to evaluating new music. Fine, let’s look at all styles and all composers, but let’s not forget that the differences between them can be crucial, in terms of where the music fits in our culture. And where it fits in our culture is going to be the key to attracting any notable audience to it.

    This is elementary, I think, in other arts. Why do we resist it in classical music?

  8. says

    Gotta say, I was interested in upgrading this summer, and now I am almost salivating. I know there are a ton of people crying because feature X wasn’t listed, but seriously? Backgrounding. Folders. In App SMS solves so many problems! And frigging Quick Look? Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Jobs, and he comes in June.