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Classical Music Critics on the Future of Music

A 10-Day AJ Topic Blog (July 28-August 7, 2004)

Note to Readers: This was a 10-day topic blog that tackled the question: What/where/are the Big Ideas in classical music? To read the full question in full, go here. This blog involved 13 prominent American music critics: 

Charles Ward Houston Chronicle
Scott Cantrell Dallas Morning News
Kyle Gann Village Voice
Anne Midgette The New York Times
Justin Davidson Newsday
John Rockwell The New York Times
Andrew Druckenbrod Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Greg Sandow The Wall Street Journal
Wynne Delacoma Chicago Sun-Times
John von Rhein Chicago Tribune
Kyle MacMillan Denver Post
Alex Ross The New Yorker
Joshua Kosman San Francisco Chronicle

Then on August 7, at the Aspen Music Festival - David Patrick Stearns of the Philadelphia Inquirer joined Midgette, Sandow and Kosman for a live debate of the question. That session was recorded, and we hope to have edited audio streams  of it by this fall. - Douglas McLennan, editor

Tuesday, July 27

    Taking Issue With The Question
    By Andrew Druckenbrod
    posted @ 2:53 pm
    Not for some postmodern heck of it, but I must take issue with the question itself. I†think the idea of unifying styles is misleading and even untrue, historically. I think the better term is "language," and even that has never been as unified or unifying as the history and theory books suggest. The language of art music in the Middle Ages was that of monophony, whether a single voice or unison singing, in either sacred chant or secular song. But plainchant or trouvere/troubadour song, respectively, existed in many different styles, rites and variants.

    The same could be said of the Renaissance, where the common language was polyphony, but different schools†produced alternate sounds, text setting, timbres, etc. In the baroque era, it is not as if the famous Monteverdi and Artusi controversy over style led to later composers†adhering just to†Monteverdi's compositional aesthetic. And the common practice period witnessed a pan-European adherence to tonality, however national styles differed so greatly as to belie any gravitating to one big concept of music.

    I guess†I am getting†carried away with examples, but there are so many. People are always looking to codify, list, label and define the world (especially in hindsight)†in order to wrap our heads around large constructs, but it's never that simple.

    So, with that buzzkill behind me, I must say I am†thrilled there isn't a major idea, language or style dominating the scene these days.

    It's one thing to teach harmony, counterpoint, theory and compositional techniques†to students, to let them know what has come before and to help them understand what makes the standout works of the past so exemplary. But why force their vision into a web of rules and shoulds? Few creative artists benefit from a muse who is a schoolmarm.

    Much good a dominating presence serial composition was for the world. Composers who broke out of that mold and now†write non-12-tone music discuss the dodecaphonic years with a ghastly remembrance usually reserved for victims of political oppression. "When I was going to Princeton in the '60s, it was so much in the air that you had to be [twelve tonal]," David Del Tredici told me last year in a interview. "No one said it; it was just the environment -- that is really powerful."

    Even twelve tone's grip on the musical world was less than was thought at the time. Every day, it seems we†find out about composers who continued writing tonal music of some sort, not to mention the radical departures of Harry Partch, Morton Feldman and George Crumb.

    Now listeners and composers have much more to choose from. Composers today can create their own language without repercussions. There are certain stylistic threads, of course, from Coplandesque to post-minimalist, but composers can really establish their own language as much as style, and then experiment further. An excellent†composer in my city, the University of Pittsburgh's Eric Moe, has established his own diatonic, but not necessarily tonal language that is unmistakably his although it synthesizes many techniques.

    If it is broken, don't fix it. Let works stand or fall on their own merit, not propped by formulaic conventions. Just listening without the incessant need to judge†music against†a central theoretical trunk can be a liberating experience. Sure, today's multiplicity of styles and languages†can make it harder on critics when writing about music, but it is well worth it.

    I am sure that a new dominating force will come that will†limit what is acceptable†for composers. It's the way history transpires. We should be thankful we have this hiatus.

    Alternate Universe
    By Kyle Gann
    posted @ 2:59 pm
    The question weíve been asked is: Why is there no big musical idea that dominates music at the moment? Asking me this is somewhat like asking Mother Teresa why there are no poor people anymore. Iíve spent 22 years chronicling the latest phases and fads in music as they go by: art rock, free improv, postminimalism, totalism, East/West fusions, political music, interactive computer music, MAX/MSP, DJ-ing as an artform, etc. So I suppose what the question boils down to is: Gee, Kyle Gann, why is it that youíve had no impact whatever?

    I do think there are some reasons for a widespread perception that there are no attractive musical ideas anymore, no common language, no styles, no -isms. But the perception is not so much in the music as in the limited imagination of music critics and those watching the music scene. Many believe, to put it succinctly, that musical changes in the future have to be analogous to changes in the past, and therefore if the same kind of changes arenít happening, then there must not be any changes. But here are a few ways in which todayís music scene differs from the past:

    1. Throughout the 20th century, each new movement represented an advance in complexity and abstraction over the last. Serialism brought that process to a dead end. Today there are plenty of ideas that dozens and dozens of composers gravitate toward, but they tend not to be difficult to understand, often more physical than conceptual. Thereís an expectation that the next big idea must be some sort of composing system, but that line of thought came to an end, at least in America.

    2. Relatedly, one thing that composers of my generation have almost universally lost patience with is the presumption of historical inevitability. The idea that 12-tone music was the inevitable music of the future and that anyone who didnít learn to write it was ďuselessĒ (Pierre Boulezís word) left a bitter taste in our mouths. So if your criterion for the new musical idea is that it has some kind of mandate behind it, youíre not going to find it - weíre proud to say.

    3. Many critics, following the Classical Script, keep looking for ďthe next big ideaĒ in the realm of orchestra music. This is like an old dog on guard at a foxhole for years after the fox slipped out the back way and moved to another state. The new ideas that attract todayís composers are manifested in computer music and chamber music, the latter often involving unconventional, composer-led ensembles. Those who write for orchestra tend to be the more conservative composers, and even those who arenít conservative have to pare down and simplify their style when they write for orchestra due to the mediumís hidebound traditions and extreme rehearsal limitations. Even John Adams, the most successful American composer for orchestra of our time, has said publicly over and over that the interesting music today isnít for orchestra. Nonetheless, I donít believe there is a force on earth that could make most music critics go look for it anywhere else. Like that old dawg, theyíve got it in their heads that the New Idea will make its way into orchestra music, and thatís where theyíre going to look.

    So what are the big new ideas? Well, my perception is that, most importantly, there have been two major movements that have grown out of minimalism, which I and others call postminimalism and totalism. Both of these are very widespread movements, especially postminimalism, which has dozens of adherents from Hawaii to Florida and from Maine to Mexico. Iíve got a discography of postminimal and totalist music you can look at, and a 1999 article about how the movements originated. I wrote an article defining postminimalism for New Music Box, and another defining totalism. In my book American Music in the Twentieth Century, I discuss the educational and cultural conditions that led composers into these particular styles, and you can read that part on my web site. And these arenít the only farflung movements out there, just the ones that Iíve studied the most.

    Of course, you can say, and some will, that postminimalism and totalism havenít attracted much public attention: ergo, they are not the Big New Ideas. But there are a lot of reasons that new music doesnít reach the public today, and inherent attractiveness of the music is not the most telling. After all, Le Marteau wasnít much of a box-office hit, but it put serialism on the map, just because back then people took new musical movements seriously. Todayís postminimal and totalist composers canít get their CDs into stores, canít find distribution. The musicís there, and tons of it is really attractive. The big ideas it manifests arenít perceived because so few people hear enough new music to realize the similarities among so many young and mid-career composers. By and large, it is not the composers who are to blame for that, nor (quite often) the music itself.

    There's my opening salvo, anyway.

    A blurry patchwork
    By Scott Cantrell
    posted @ 3:42 pm

    "The Next Big Thing?" Ah, how we journalists love to find and name trends.

    What are the trends today? Mainly fragmentation: all those web sites, all those cable channels, all those phone companies. The problem with life today, as my mother has observed, is that there are too many choices.

    And--dare I say it?--all those composers. Surely there are more people today calling themselves composers than at any previous time in history. The most devoted of us "professional listeners" hear only a tiny fraction of new music. How can we presume to pontificate on trends?

    But this has been a pet peeve I've long had with at least some colleagues. I remember Michael Walsh, when Time magazine still had a classical music critic, naming the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra the best orchestra in the country. Had he heard†the St. Louisians†often enough, and the competition often enough, to pass so sweeping a judgement? Come, now. For that matter, how would one pick "the best orchestra?" Or "the greatest conductor," as Newsweek once dubbed Herbert von Karajan. (As Anna Russell used to say of The Ring, "I'm not making this us, you know."

    The biggest problem for composers today, it seems to me, is that we all have so much music in our ears so much of the time. Amid this welter of music past and present, it must be harder than at any previous time to find one's own compositional voice. There are those, I realize, who toot the horn of eclecticism, but is anyone out there (apart from, maybe Lyric Opera of Chicago) prepared to pump for William Bolcom as a great composer? A skilled and clever one, okay--but great?

    Yes, Bach brought together elements from the musical cultures of Germany, Italy and France. He wrote organ chorale preludes†modeled on 16th-century choral music. So did Brahms. But somehow they found ways to set their own seals, to refresh their models.

    So much of the newer orchestral music I hear sounds like rehashed gestures from early 20th-century composers who did it better the first time. (Can you say "Lowell Liebermann?") The newer American operas getting the most performances--Mark Adamo's Little Women, Jake Heggie's Dead Man Walking--seem almost willfully impersonal. If there's a trend in newer American operas, it's nondescript, free-floating arioso.

    American politics has become vehemently partisan, but--at least to an observer--our musical scene seems to be a blurry patchwork. Composers who get performed, at least in the admittedly conservative Dallas/Fort Worth scene, tend to be the ones that "get along," that "play well with others." The vehement partisanship of the young Boulez now seems unimaginably quaint.

    But if there's no "big thing" in composition, the same is true with performers. No pleiad of pianists†dominates the scene as Horowitz and Rubinstein once did (at least in the US). How many typical symphony concertgoers could name even five conductors?

    Ours seems to be an age of†leveling. And of relativism: one thing's as good as another. Elitism is a dirty word. Critics are hanging on†by the skin of their teeth.

    Initial entry
    By John Rockwell
    posted @ 4:31 pm

    Big ideas tend to be backward projections. At any point in music history there have been controversies and warring schools and pedants to pronounce that some composers weren't even composing music at all. Right now, we certainly seem to be in flux, but there seems to me to be several points around which a new "big idea," or big ideas, could coalesce -- or have coalesced.

    One is the connection between the Western tradition and various forms of what we are told is the politically incorrect term world music. This flows all which way, of course: Western composers being influenced by exotic cultures, exotics being influenced by us, exotics being influenced by other exotics (e.g., Bollywood music being big in non-Indian Africa).

    Another is the high-low connection, about which enough said already, at least for now. Another is the impact of technology. Yet another is our shifting attitude toward the various forms of musical modernism, the old uptown-downtown wars being easily perceived now as having been struggles between variants of modernism.

    I think big ideas are still very much possible, but I would challenge one aspect of†this mega-blog's written premise. I don't think ideas coalesce (among whom?), and then that they gain "traction with a critical mass of composers." I think composers make music (sometimes linked with ideas, however polemically expressed, and sometimes linked with other composers) and then critics and other camp-followers catch on, articulate them however crudely, and finally turn them into pedantry, by which time the next big idea has already coalesced.

    How big is a big idea?
    By Justin Davidson
    posted @ 4:37 pm

    Iím not sure that the Big Ideas of the past seemed quite so monolithic to the people who held or opposed them, except in the philosophically oh-so-self-conscious Germany of the late 19th Century. (Iím talking about the puffed-up ďMusic of the Future debates.)

    Surely Mozart, for instance, saw himself as fusing many of the idioms that were available to him Ė Lutheran chorales, Counterreformation counterpoint, learned fugue, popular German melodrama, over-the-top Italian opera, harpsichord improvisations, mooning Romantic melodies, cut-rate fanfares, folk songs, Mannheim gut-punches, and so on. He manipulated all these disparate genres and mushed them together with post-modern panache. Categories, to him as to us, seemed valuable insofar as they could be broken down

    I think of todayís compositional scene as a generation in search of a synthesis, rather than a new order. In going to concerts of new music Iím always struck, not so much any more by the absence of a lingua franca, but by the need to have currents and traditions merge and jostle. Each piece becomes a little Queens.

    Itís easy to see the appeal of this approach, which mirrors census data and patterns of migration. America now boasts its first generation of composers born and raised in Asia ( Tan Dun, Chen Yi, Zhou Long, Bright Sheng†, to mention only the Chinese contingent) producing a large body of music that is about cultural conflict and accommodation, which is the issue of our time.

    What puzzles me, though, is the feeling that in this free-for-all itís still possible to distinguish the good from the bad. Quality is not dead. The music of Osvaldo Golijov blends Jewish klezmer, Russian romanticism, Argentinian tango, Israeli folk song, a pan-Latin assortment of rhythms and North American minimalism into an exhilarating hybrid. Yet the other day, I went to hear Paul Taylor (aka DJ Spooky that Subliminal Kid) preside over ďTransmetropolitan,Ē an evening of cross-cultural electronic music and literature that struck me as so much amateurish feelgood globalism.

    So whatís the difference? A strong compositional hand, a personal sensibility capable of treating a superabundance of sources like so much reusable clay. When that sort of spirit emerges, a fitful consensus develops. Golijov regularly makes crowds go wild and critics shed their shells.

    Thatís fine for those who are already in the concert hall, but can a wider cultural consensus develop behind a musical idea today? Can a composer ever again capture the popular imagination? Thatís a topic for another blog.

    Jotting I: We do have a Big Idea
    By Charles Ward
    posted @ 4:48 pm
    Musicians reflexively think a big idea means a dominant musical style, like classicism or serialism, but such a style often simply reflects the political, social and intellectual ideas that shape an era. I believe classical music in the United States currently is dominated by the radical egalitarianism that emerged politically in the 1960s. The belief that anything and everything should be equal has produced a period, at least in the United States, where any classical style, sufficiently well crafted, is acceptable - or should be, according to the radical egalitarian dogma.

    The problem for classical music is how, aided by revolutions brought on by such things the invention of the transistor and the emergence of jet travel, that egalitarianism has shaken the foundations of many of its mainstay institutions.

    READER: Where Are The Women?
    By Virginie Foucault
    posted @ 6:50 pm

    How's GENDER PARITY for a big idea in classical music: within performing ensembles, administrative corps, boards of directors, journalists, and... the participants in artsjournal.com's blog?

Read this blog by date: 7/27 7/28 7/29 7/30 7/31 8/1 8/2 8/3 8/4 8/5 8/6 8/7


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There was a time when great cities had multiple newspapers and culture was hashed out daily in the press, strongly-held opinions battling for the hearts and minds of readers. Today it's rare for a city to have more than one or two outlets where culture can be publicly discussed, let alone prodded and pulled and challenged... More

If the history of music is the recorded conversation of ideas, then where do we find ourselves in that conversation at the start of the 21st Century? In the past, musical ideas have been fought over, affirmed then challenged again, with each generation adding something new. Ultimately consensus was achieved around an idea, and that idea gained traction with a critical mass of composers.

Now we are in a period when no particular musical idea seems to represent our age, and it appears that for the moment Ė at least on the surface Ė that there is no obvious direction music is going. So the question is: what is the next chapter in the historical conversation of musical ideas, and where are the seeds of those ideas planted?

Or: Is it possible that, with traditional cultural structures fragmenting, and the ways people are getting and using culture fundamentally changing, that it is no longer possible for a unifying style to emerge? Is it still possible for a Big Idea to attain the kind of traction needed to energize and acquire a critical mass of composers and performers?

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READER: The purpose of music
- Linda Rogers (08/06/2004 10:46 am)

READER: Thank you to all
- Jennifer Higdon (08/06/2004 10:10 am)

READER: To Corey Dargel and Kyle Gann
- Garth Trinkl (08/06/2004 9:21 am)

READER: re:Where Are The Young Voices?
- Andrea La Rose (08/06/2004 9:21 am)

READER: To Justin: Art can be entertaining, but it is not entertainment
- Arthur J. Sabatini (08/06/2004 8:42 am)

Final Disinformation

- Kyle Gann (08/06/2004 8:41 am)

READER: Where Are The Young Voices?
- Corey Dargel (08/06/2004 8:21 am)

Over and out - an anti-rant rant
- Justin Davidson (08/06/2004 7:05 am)

READER: Classical Music Doesn't Fit The PR Mold
- Dennis Bathory-Kitsz (08/05/2004 9:21 pm)

READER: Eclecticism Is Better Anyway
- Hale Jacob (08/05/2004 7:41 pm)

All Posts


Greg Sandow
  The Wall Street Journal
 - To Justin: Hermetic

 - Performance ideas
 - Truly big classical

Another view

Wynne Delacoma
  Chicago Sun-Times
 - Composer bashing, female
    critics, form and content
 - Big Ideas--Who Needs Them?

Alex Ross
  The New Yorker
 - Clarification, Departure
 - The New New Thing
 - Provocation!
 - To AC Douglas
 - Pop Innovation
A Potential Goldmine
 - To Rockwell: Styles, Not

 - Listening for Passionate

Kyle Gann
  Village Voice
 - Listening examples provided
 - Queries for John Rockwell
 - Unfair on my part
 - Composer bashing
 - Inside a big idea
 - Names & Their Inadequacies
 - The Idea & Its Conditions
The Next Medium-Sized Idea
 - Alternate Universe

Justin Davidson
 - Thanks, Kyle
 - proposal
 - To Kyle
 - Who's saying give up?
 - Some Things Are New, Actually
 - High/Low Redux
 - pop envy
Where was THAT in Classical

 - Apology & Comment
 - How Big is a Big Idea?

John Rockwell
  The New York Times
 - Reply to Kyle and a Plea
 - Arghhh, or however you
    spell it
 - The Magpie
 - Brahms and Wagner
Question for Kyle
 - To Alex, Justin: the pedant
    at work

 - Initial Entry

Scott Cantrell
  Dallas Morning News
 - What's success?
 - Pop music precendent
 - Multiculturalism
 - Fragmentation
 - Female Critics
 - Movements & Media
A Blurry Patchwork

Charles Ward
  Houston Chronicle
 - Jotting IV: Grab Bag
 - Jotting III: When John
 - Jotting II: I'd Rather Not Get
    A Call From Stalin

Jotting I: We Do Have A Big

Anne Midgette
  The New York Times
 - What's the big idea?
 - A Few Responses To
    Other Postings
 - Back to Fragmentation
    for a Minute

 - Gender footnote
 - Another preamble

Andrew Druckenbrod
  Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
 - Composers are Composers
    but Distinctions are
 - No apology to pop and

 - Taking Issue With The

John von Rhein
  Chicago Tribune

Kyle MacMillan
  Denver Post

Joshua Kosman
  San Francisco Chronicle


The Purpose of Music
- Linda Rogers (08/06/2004 10:46 am)

Thank you to all
- Jennifer Higdon (08/06/2004 10:10 am)

To Corey Dargel and Kyle Gann
- Garth Trinkl (08/06/2004 10:00 am)

re: Where Are The Young Voices?
- Andrea La Rose (08/06/2004 9:21 am)

To Justin: Art can be entertaining, but it is notentertainment
- Arthur J. Sabatini (08/06/2004 8:42 am)

Where Are The Young Voices?
- Corey Dargel (08/06/2004 8:20 am)

Summing Up
- Brian Newhouse (08/05/2004 9:26 pm)

Classical Music Doesn't Fit The PR Mold
- Dennis Bathory-Kitsz (08/05/2004 9:18 pm)

Eclecticism Is Better Anyway
- Hale Jacob (08/05/2004 7:40 pm)

What Is Live Performance, Anyway?
- Steve Layton (08/05/2004 7:34 pm)

All Reader Posts


- Discography of Minimalist and
    Totalist music

- Kyle Gann on Post-Minimalism
- Kyle Gann: Following the
    Classical Script


- DJ Spooky
- Tan Dun
- Zhou Long
- Bright Sheng



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