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Critical Conversation
Classical Music Critics on the Future of Music

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


Wednesday, July 28

    Listening for Passionate Engagement
    By Alex Ross
    posted @ 2:41 am

    Composers are recovering from the twentieth century, the century in which big ideas ran amok. A kind of competitive marketplace developed in the wake of Wagner in which composers tried to outstrip each other in the invention of new languages, new trends, new stylized relationships with the past.

    You had Debussyish impressionism, Schoenbergian atonality, Stravinskyan neoclassicism, Milhaud’s jazz style, Hindemith’s “music for use,” Weill’s “epic opera,” Krenek’s “now opera,” Copland’s “populist” style, Ives’ polystylistic collage — and that takes us up only to the middle of the century. In the postwar era, pandemonium. Stockhausen has at one time or another described himself as the purveyor of “serial music,” “point music,” “electronic music,” “new percussion music,” “new piano music,” “spatial music,” “statistical music,” “aleatoric music,” “live electronic music,” a “new syntheses of music and speech,” “musical theatre,” “ritual music,” “scenic music,” “group composition,” “process composition,” “moment composition,” “formula composition,” “multi-formula composition,” “universal music,” “telemusic,” “spiritual music,” “intuitive music,” “mantric music,” and, last but not least, “cosmic music.” All big ideas — but big music? At no time in the last hundred years did any one style predominate. The last time music can really be said to have been “unified” was in 1880 or so, before the advent of Debussy.

    Is the lack of big ideas a crisis or a boon? On the one hand, I think it’s immensely clarifying for composers to be speaking the same language. Part of the trouble that listeners have with “modern music” is that they have absolutely no idea what to expect: noise, silence, tonality, atonality, a hundred shades in between. So if there were a trend toward consolidation, toward the creation of a new “lingua franca,” it would be all to the good. But it’s not going to happen. Our musical world is too global, too multifarious, for any one language to take over.

    More than ever, the composer is going to be a kind of creative parasite, feeding off available sounds. Which is not to say that every piece must become a crazy-quilt of styles. The so-called postmodern era is also over — the carnival at the end of the modernist fast. Rather, nothing is in theory “out of bounds,” anything is possible. What matters is not the language of the work but the passion and focus of the speaker. As a critic, I am trying more and more to make no pre-judgements whatsoever on the question of style,  and simply to listen for passionate engagement.

    To Alex and Justin; the pedant at work
    By John Rockwell
    posted @ 3:45 am
    Alex: a unified style in 1880, in the teeth of the Hanslick-Wagner-Brahms brou-ha-ha? Justin: It's Paul Miller, not Paul Taylor, and however bad both you and I thought his "Transmetroplitan" was, you're lucky you didn't see his "Rebirth of a Nation" two days later, which Jon Pareles reviews in today's Times and which I comment on in my Friday column.

    Apology & comment
    By Justin Davidson
    posted @ 5:29 am

    Oops, Paul Miller, yes of course. Not Paul Taylor, the choreographer. Too bad about Rebirth of a Nation, for which I had at least modest hopes.

    OK, so we're more or less agreed that a musical consensus was always a mirage. (We have a consensus! What do you know?) Even so, there was at least a lingua franca. There were rules, conventions, categories, broad notions of taste and appropriateness, a notion of the vulgar and refined that the transgressive likes of Ives and Mahler could challenge and exploit. We have none of that today. Composers are condemned to reinvent the wheel and audiences have lost the valuable capacity to be shocked. Can anyone imagine a piece of music starting a Rite of Spring-like riot today?

    That state of grace, in which composers know that audiences know what to expect and create drama by defying those expectations, ain't coming back. That makes for a difficult creative climate, not just for composers but for performing musicians too. How do you surprise a jaded audience with a sudden diminished seventh chord or a "wrong" resolution, or an quirky change of meter? The bourgeoisie has become epatement-proof.

    (Incidentally, the same issues apply in the visual arts, but exhibition wall texts still prattle on about "transgression" and "challenging received notions" as if those terms had any meaning.) 

    We critics are left trying to orient ourselves in each new piece. Fortunately, we are helped by the tenacious human penchant for spinoff, plagiarism and imitation. Even in a time that prizes originality above all else - and therefore debases the whole concept - every new invention immediately attracts a swarm of knock-offs. These neo-pseudo-school-of-pieces do us the great service of throwing into relief the qualities of the first or the best (not necessarily the same thing).

    So maybe the starting question can be reformulated a little more modestly: What's the next Medium-Sized idea? That is, who are the younger composers capable of generating a derivative school, of being eventually coopted by car commercials, of being asked to write Hollywood film scores?

    Alex, if the postmodern carnvial is over, have you detected the next phase?


    The Next Medium-Sized Idea
    By Kyle Gann
    posted @ 6:39 am
    So maybe the starting question can be reformulated a little more modestly: What's the next Medium-Sized idea? That is, who are the younger composers capable of generating a derivative school, of being eventually coopted by car commercials, of being asked to write Hollywood film scores?

    Well, thought I answered this, but let me try again. One of the most widespread current styles, a true lingua franca in which a great variety of composers across the country communicate, is postminimalism. To recycle a description I’ve published, rather than “say it again in worser English” as Robert Frost said, postminimalist music is generally

    tonal, mostly consonant (or at least never tensely dissonant), and usually based on a steady pulse. The music rarely strays from conventionally musical sounds, although many of the composers use synthesizers. Postminimal composers tended to work in shorter forms than the minimalists, 15 minutes rather than 75 or 120, and with more frequent textural variety. And the preferred medium for most of them was the mixed chamber ensemble pioneered by Glass and Reich, though without the minimalist habit of ensemble unison. [Postminimalist music also tends to combine elements from diverse cultures, though in an integrated rather than eclectic manner. Quasi-minimalist additive and subtractive processes, often moving A, AB, ABC, and so on, are common as a structural basis.]

    Another way to characterize postminimalism is negative: it was the exact antipodal opposite of serialism. Like the serialists, the postminimalists sought a consistent musical language, a cohesive syntax within which to compose. But where serialist syntax was abrupt, discontinuous, angular, arrhythmic, and opaque, postminimalist syntax was precisely the opposite: smooth, linear, melodic, gently rhythmic, comprehensible. The postminimalist generation, most of them born in the 1940s, had grown up studying serialism, and had internalized many of its values. Minimalism inspired them to seek a more audience-friendly music than serialism, but they still conceptualized music in terms familiar to them from 12-tone thought: as a language with rules meant to guarantee internal cohesiveness.

    A few of the composers I’d consider as falling into this movement include William Duckworth, Janice Giteck, Daniel Lentz, the late Jonathan Kramer, Ingram Marshall, Beth Anderson, Daniel Goode, Dan Becker, Carolyn Yarnell, Belinda Reynolds, John Halle, Randall Woolf, Melissa Hui, Marc Mellits, Ed Harsh, Elodie Lauten, Peter Gena, Bill Alves, David Borden, Gavin Bryars, Michael Nyman, Giancarlo Cardini, Michael Byron, Conrad Cummings, Robert Een, Jim Fox, Jean Hasse, Paul Lansky, John McGuire, Paul Epstein, Peter Garland, Paul Dresher, Tayloe Harding, Mary Jane Leach, Beata Moon, Hans Otte, Maggi Payne, James Sellars, Bunita Marcus, Julius Eastman, Andrew Schulze, Nicole Reisnour, Allison Cameron, Wayne Siegel, Charles Smith, Giovanni Sollima, Bernadette Speach, Kevin Volans, "Blue" Gene Tyranny, sometimes James Tenney, Stephen Scott, Mary Ellen Childs, Guy Klucevsek, Phil Winsor, Joseph Koykkar, Thomas Albert, Sasha Matson, and Wes York.

    Now, I don’t know about asking these guys to write film scores - geez, is that going to be a criterion? But I did note that the 2000 film Pollock, about the Abstract Expressionist painter, had a fascinating film score by Jeff Beal in a thoroughly postminimalist idiom.

    Question for Kyle
    By John Rockwell
    posted @ 7:20 am

    There was a time, long ago, when I was as up on the byways of new music as Kyle is. But an innocent question (innocent because I don't know half of Kyle's postminimalist names): how many of those composers are under the age of 50? If, as I suspect (but don't know for sure), the considerable majority are roughly Kyle's age, then can their work be considered the next big, or even medium, thing?

    Of course, you could argue that in their maturity they represent the current mainstream, even if they've hardly made a dent on the larger public consciousness. I mean, maybe there's a big idea seizing those who write poetry in Urdu as a hobby, but can it legitimately be compared to chorale preludes on Lutheran hymn tunes or the birth of the symphony or "the music of the future" or even Serialism, back when? Trees falling unheard in forests, etc. 

    The Idea and its Conditions
    By Kyle Gann
    posted @ 7:49 am
    Hi John - the composers on that list range in age from 23 to 66, but the bulk of them are in their 40s and 50s - maybe a third of them aren't 50 yet. We could discuss totalism, and I could give you another list mostly in their 40s. I’m 48, and I don’t feel well qualified to characterize the music scene of people a decade or more younger than myself. Some youngster will have to speak for his own generation.

    As for making a dent in public consciousness, I don’t believe that that is any longer within the composer’s control. These days, corporations refuse to push music that doesn’t make an immediate return on its investment, and so they act as a daunting filter. A lot of these people have CDs on small labels that, in the golden 1960s and ‘70s, distributors might have carried for variety’s sake, but will do so no longer. Heck, in the '60s Columbia would have been recording these people. In terms of the new-music scene at its current drought level of support, a lot of these people are considered well-known - given that, by and large, these are names you will not find on orchestra programs, because they don't bother with the orchestra (or vice versa).

    It’s easy, if we want to do it, to define “the next big idea” in such a way that nothing could possibly qualify under current cultural conditions: 1. it has to have broken through massive corporate indifference to creative music, and to have reached the public; 2. it has to be by composers who became “successful” by a certain age; etc. I offer a definition that is realistic given the status quo - otherwise we’re likely to, instead, end up talking about the status quo itself.

    To John Rockwell: Styles, Not Politics
    By Alex Ross
    posted @ 8:20 am

    When I said that music in 1880 was unified, I meant stylistically, not politically. Despite the heated Wagner-Brahms debate, I think close analysts would agree that the two composers were speaking pretty much the same language in harmonic terms. With some judicious re-scoring, you could make parts of "Parsifal" sound like the Fourth Symphony, and vice versa. Compare the stylistic canyons of the year 1950: Britten's "Billy Budd" and Boulez's "Structures" simply do not inhabit the same universe, even though both were performed almost simultaneously in Paris in 1952.

    I'll readily agree with Kyle Gann that post-minimalism is probably the biggest "middle-sized" idea these days. The classic minimalism of Young, Riley, Reich, and Glass was the last "big idea" of the twentieth century, and I doubt we'll see another anytime soon. Minimalism had a far greater impact on pop music (Velvet Underground, Brian Eno, David Bowie, all modern electronic and dance music) than it did on classical composition, where it is still being very gradually assimilated. Young composers tell me that the minimalists are routinely dispraised in academic music departments around the country, which seems incredible. Before we go forward, we have to understand the past ‹ absorb the twentieth century in all its "alienated majesty," to quote Emerson.

    READER: Where's Music's Toni Morrison?
    By Gary Panetta
    posted @ 1:11 pm

    Thanks for posting such interesting comments on music. Can your critics compare the current state of affairs with music with that of other art forms such as drama or literature? For instance, in the past 25 years I can think of several developments in these fields that percolated down into public consciousness... read more

    READER: Ideas From Critics?
    By Jan Herman
    posted @ 1:14 pm

    When a composer friend of mine (who is traveling at the moment) heard about Critical Conversations, he wrote me: "If there are big ideas to be discussed, or even the possibilities of big ideas, it is much more likely to come from artists themselves."... read more

    Brahms and Wagner
    By John Rockwell
    posted @ 1:34 pm
    Dead horses should not be unduly beaten, and this conversation is about the present and future, however much we might learn from the past. But Alex, I still think there were big differences between W and B -- not just Hanslick's polemics, but what they themselves believed and what we today can still hear. It would be interesting to know what Schoenberg thought about this, or what Walter Frisch thinks (maybe they've articulated themselves already on the subject). Even if one buys the idea of the basic similarity of harmonic language in W and B (and sure, they were both in the German tradition, post-Bach, post-Beethoven), there are other differences. Like form and rhythm and use of motivic phrases or kernels and the relation to words and so on. I buy your Britten-Boulez comparison, though. But what about the differences in abstraction from a Pollock painting to an Earle Brown graphic score to Babbitt? Everything looks "unified" from a distant enough perspective.

    Initial posting. Big Ideas--Who Needs Them?
    By Wynne Delacoma
    posted @ 3:22 pm
    I have never understood the allure of trying to define the next Big Idea, especially in such a tumultuous field as classical music. At certain points in history, big or semi-big Ideas are so obvious that they practically name themselves. With the rise of Glass, Reich and Riley, minimalism was obviously one big idea. Serialism was another. But eventually, many big ideas turn into big ideologies, schools of thought that stifle creativity rather than stimulate it. It is beyond me why we would feel the need to search for big ideas--or worst yet, predict the next one--at a time, like now, when none is obviously rising to the surface. Admittedly, big ideas are useful for critics, and I mourn the lack of them at the moment. We have all struggled to describe a piece of music in a way that readers might actually understand, that would help them imagine the sounds we heard. "Minimalist'' and "12-tone'' are handy labels, shorthand we can assume will have some meaning for our readers. The urge to classify is a human need, a source of comfort, a way of making order out of the chaos around us. In our hearts, however, we must acknowledge that our carefully constructed order is most likely an illusion. I have no doubt that any number of potential big ideas are swirling around out there, But until one emerges, its absence is no tragedy. Big ideas are useful when they come along. They give listeners a way to understand unfamiliar music. They give composers with competing views something to rebel against. But presuming to define and predict trends has always struck me as preposterous, an exercise in pomposity. Who among us really knows where a dynamic art form is headed?

    Movements and media
    By Scott Cantrell
    posted @ 3:42 pm

    Interesting stuff here, including the first trickle from readers.

    "Post-modernism." "Post-minimalism." The very labels tell us there is no "big thing." We now define what's happening only by what it's not.

    One musical legacy of the 20th century was the vast spread of classical music, even into smallish cities. Today you can see sophisticated opera productions, with a very fine orchestra, even in Tulsa, Oklahoma. For all the exalted (some might say hyped) reputation of the Metropolitan Opera orchestra, on a given evening you may hear better playing in the pit in Houston.

    What hasn't gotten spread abroad is the new-music scene, which is still heavily concentrated in New York, maybe Los Angeles and a handful of academic centers. Of Kyle Gann's long list of significant newer composers, no more than three have been heard in the Dallas-Fort Worth area in the five years I've been here. But then neither, to my knowledge, have we had a single piece by either Elliott Carter or Pierre Boulez. We have two small contemporary-music series, but their programming tends to be wary of upsetting people's digestion.

    Kyle also raises the issue of the record industry vis-a-vis new music. After a veritable explosion in the 1990s, when the CD was the hot new thing, the record business now is a floundering "mature industry." With what used to be the "majors" reduced to kitschy crossover and repackaging back catalogue, performers and even composers are putting out their own CDs, which don't get widespread distribution. Which provides yet another example of the fragmentation of music and culture in general. Downloading has the potential of transforming the whole recording business, but at least for classical music it's not there yet. Maybe we're all just waiting for "the next big thing" in music delivery systems. But in the meantime, don't count on major recorded exposure for new music.

    There's also the problem of the daily-newspaper scene. Even a city as big as Houston, the fourth-largest in the country, has only one daily newspaper with one classical music critic (the knowlegeable and thoughtful Charles Ward). Gone are the days when critics at hotly competitive papers tried to outdo one another by going out on partisan limbs. The high-and-mighty pontifications of Virgil Thomson wouldn't sell today.

    I felt this keenly when, after working in competitive newspaper markets in Albany and Rochester, N.Y., I went to The Kansas City Star, which had just absorbed its competing paper. As the only classical-music critic in town, I found myself more cautious in my judgements, less willing to be outrageous. No one told me to do so, but I just felt myself in a very different position. It doesn't help, of course, that ours has become so litigious a society. Or that papers, increasingly jittery about perceptions of bias, promote "fair and balanced" (pace Fox News) coverage.

    What critic today would write, as Hanslick did of the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto, of "music that stinks in the ear?" Maybe we're more responsible in writing about new music, more careful. But we're a lot less fun to read. 

    Good point from the reader raising the issue of gender balance, which isn't even close in much of the classical-music world. Nowhere is the imbalance worse than in music criticism. The New York Times finally hired a woman, Anne Midgette, and we've got Wynne Delacoma in Chicago, Willa Conrad in Newark, Melinda Bargreen in Seattle, Janelle Gelfand and Mary Ellen Hutton in Cincinnati, Wilma Salisbury in the number-two spot in Cleveland. Have I forgotten someone? Out of maybe 55 full-time classical-music critics at American papers, that's hardly parity.

    Names and their Inadequacy
    By Kyle Gann
    posted @ 3:58 pm
    In response to Scott Cantrell's comment (hello, Scott - glad to be in contact with the critic from my hometown newspaper), it's true that "postminimalism" is an unfortunately vague term. On the other hand, a more specific term might be even more unfortunate - I feel a moniker for a musical movement should be kind of cloudy (Fluxus was a great one), so as not to seem like it's pushing composers in a specific direction. It may be that, years from now, a more appropriate term will evolve for the music we now call postminimal. After all, by the time A.B. Marx coined "sonata-allegro form" in 1828, Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, and Schubert were all dead, and the purely concentrated history of the genre was about over. I could also, though, have chosen instead to write about totalism or spectral music (Europe's latest composing fad), both of which terms have a little more to do with the techniques involved.

    Another view
    By Greg Sandow
    posted @ 4:02 pm

    Let me try this in another way. I think we're suffering (not that anyone will be surprised to see me say this) from a disconnect between classical music and the rest of our culture. We're tossing around serialism, poor dead serialism, as an example of a classical music Big Idea, but who, outside the small world of composers, ever cared about it? Maybe Claude Levi-Strauss, who slapped it with the back of his hand when it was new ("Guys, this is bullshit!" if I might freely paraphrase what he wrote). But who else cared?

    All classical music trembled (well, composers trembled) when Pierre Boulez so famously said that non-serial composers were useless, Meanwhile, Philip Glass, who was in Paris during some of Boulez's most impassioned years, pointed out much later in an interview that Parisians in the arts didn't care about Boulez. Godard, Truffaut -- that's who they talked about. And I can understand that. In high school late in the '50s and then in college early in the '60s, the Big Ideas that resonated with me came from films. Antonioni was my god. I can remember in his film Red Desert a shot that gripped me for what seemed to be minutes; when I saw the film a second time, I realized that it had only lasted seconds. I remember in Godard's La Chinoise a way the starts and stops of a commuter train punctuated a conversation, and in Two or Three Things I Know About Her how space seemed to curve itself into a closeup of a cup of coffee that had just been stirred.

    For me, these things defined power in new art. And in many ways they still do; I'd rather lose all the music of that time (certainly all of Boulez, much as I like his stuff) than those films. The ideas in them were in some ways abstract, and in some ways not. My favorite, my touchstone, was Antonioni's L'avventura. What I learned from it was the power of unspoken passion, and -- a favorite '50s theme -- the blankness and futility, the deadly, bleak alienation, of a society that can't accommodate that, or much of anything else (except hypocrisy, and bland conformity). And the film seems just as powerful now. Here were Big Ideas that were very much part of their time, whether they showed up in Sartre, or Beckett, or in popular sociological tomes like The Organization Man or The Lonely Crowd.

    And where were these Big Ideas, so central to their time, in the classical music of the '50s? Nowhere, I'd say. Where was existentialism? Psychoanalysis? The Beat Generation? A Big Idea, in these terms, doesn't have to dominate. It doesn't have to be the Only Idea. It just has to sweep some large group of people into its path, define their lives for them. The Big Ideas in musical composition swept along hardly anybody, and defined hardly anything. Throughout my adult life, much as I've loved classical music, the defining ideas I've most cared about have mostly come from elsewhere. I've dwelt on the '50s here, but I could easily find examples in other decades. Did the '60s even register inside the classical world? (Well, sure, George Crumb seems like a '60s type, and Stockhausen went as far off the deep end as Timothy Leary, but these are isolated figures, despite their fame.)

    I'll close (because I've been plunging back into the Beats lately) with an eager, excited, naive, inspired passage from Kerouac's On the Road, as quintessential a piece of Big Idea-ing as we're likely to find in any art produced in the '50s, tremendously influential, a book that echoed down the decades (and now, God save the mark, is even an Acknowledged Literary Masterpiece). Note especially the last few words:

    The whole mad swirl of everything that was to come began then; it would mix up all my friends and all I had left of my family in a big dust cloud over the American Night. Carlo told him of Old Bull Lee, Elmer Hassel, Jane; Lee in Texas growing weed, Hassel on Riker's Island, Jane wandering on Times Square in a benzedrine hallucination, with her baby girl in her arms and ending up in Bellvue. And Dean told Carlo of unknown people in the West like Tommy Snark, the clubfooted poolhall rotation shark and cardplayer and queer saint. He told him of Roy Johnson, Big Ed Dunkel, his boyhood buddies, his street buddies, his innumerable girls and sex parties and pornographic pictures, his heroes, heroines, adventures. They rushed down the street together, digging everything in the early way they had, which later became so much sadder and perceptive and blank. But then they danced down the streets like dingledodies, and I shambled after as I've been doing all my life after people who interest me, because the only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars...

    Where was that in classical music?

    Where was THAT in classical music?
    By Justin Davidson
    posted @ 5:59 pm


    That was not to be found because the big idea about music in the 1950s was that music was supposed to be about music. As much as avant-garde film lost itself in the narcotic charms of this camera angle or that excruciating silence, it still couldn't help being about the same things that have always concerned consumers of art: emotions, money, sex, power, self-regard. And no matter how much writers delighted themselves with the abstract ring, the rhythm - okay, the musicality - of language, they were still, at bottom telling stories and describing the world around them.

    But by then composers, even the best composers - especially the best composers - had wandered so deep into the forests of technique, sound, structure and effect that the music they wrote was completely hermetic. I don't mean that it was incomprehensible, only that it was purely about itself.

    This has largely remained true.

    It's got nothing to do with serialism. Glass' music isn't particularly about anything, either: it's just a decorative acoustical pillow on which dramatic jewels can be placed for show. His burbling music suits scenes of passing clouds or obsessed explorers or Chinese emperors equally well, precisely because it lacks specific content.  Postminimalism, totalism, and their ilk are still mostly pure-music constructs - reactions to or extensions of what other composers have done before. So the audience is left behind: if you don't know the ur-style, you can't grasp the post-.

    But maybe we've come full circle. Postmodernism may be dead (though I'm not convinced) but many musicians and composers are once again deeply involved in trying to reconcile the "whole mad swirl," as Kerouac put it. Only this time it's a global swirl, a sense of cultural overload that has become even more acute since 9/11. Every day we have trouble understanding how ancient conflicts and traditions can coexist with new technologies and ideologies.

    That's why I harp so much on Golijov, because I think he is one of those composers who have successfully managed a lot of different inputs. John Adams has remarked that Charles Ives was the first composer to think of the orchestra as a mixing console - letting different musical sources compete in real time. Golijov once told me that he literally composed his "Pasion segun San Marcos" in the same way: patching together Reich's Music for 18 Musicians with some looped Afro-Indian chants, and listening to the result for hour upon hour, as a way of getting himself started.

    When Ives sat down at his orchestral console, he was working on the Big Idea of his time: the breathless urbanization and industrialization of small-town America, seen through a spiritual prism. Golijov is writing about one of our big ideas: the breathless westernization and economic consolidation of a small-country world, again seen through a spiritual prism.

    Greg's right: half a century ago film, literature and the media could coalesce around a burning topic while composers fiddled. Today, hot topics have the shelf life of oysters in the sun, leaving composers to keep contemplating what's important after everyone else has moved on. Cultural globalism isn't over just because pundits have gotten tired of talking about it.

    Truly big classical ideas
    By Greg Sandow
    posted @ 6:09 pm

    It seems to me that the biggest ideas in classical music -- at least in my time -- haven't been about composition. I'm talking about ideas that had a dominant, defining impact on the field, and one of these would be a standard notion about the role of performers -- that they exist to realize the composer's intentions. If you ask me, this notion is badly suspect, and the first problem with it is that it ought to be unnecessary. Since classical performers play music composers have written, what else -- other than play what the composer wrote -- are they supposed to be in business for? I guess we could worry about the one musician in ten thousand who deliberately goes against what the composer writes (by playing a fast piece slowly, or a soft one fortissimo), but these people are too rare to bother with.

    No, I think the stricture I'm talking about has another function -- it's directed towards performers who take a very personal (and typically romantic) view of a composer's score. Thus it privileges "objective" interpretations, or anyway interpretations that have come to seem objective, performances without extremes of dynamics, tempo, feeling, or contrast. And thus it's in many ways a modernist notion, linked to literary criticism that focuses on objective facts about a text, and to modernist music, where the role of the performer is distinctly secondary. (In one extreme but telling comment, Milton Babbitt compared performers to typists.)

    In its time, this kind of performance could be bracing, and certainly rescued us from some kinds of sentimental excess. But buried inside it is a curious notion, which is that the composers' intentions most worth honoring are the ones notated objectively in a score. Sometimes, in fact, these become the only intentions worth honoring. And this is curious, because composers have all kinds of other ideas, either implicit in the score, inherent in the musical style of a piece, known from the performance practice of the time when a piece was written -- or, most interestingly, explicitly stated by the composer.

    What do we make, for instance, of a Bellini opera, where Bellini wanted and expected his vocal lines to be changed by each singer who sang them? Or of Webern, who passionately urged performers of his music to make shifts in tempo and dynamics not marked in his scores? (He certainly conducted other people's music that way, as his recordings of Schubert dances show.)

    And then there are what we might call composers' meta-intentions, things not related to the notes, but rather to the effect a piece should make. Mozart said outright that the first movement of his Paris Symphony was designed to make the audience react -- he deliberately repeated material that he knew the crowd would like, and was delighted when they burst into applause while the music was playing. He also said that the orchestral accompaniment to Belmonte's opening aria in The Abduction from the Seraglio was meant to evoke, among other things, the beating of Belmonte's heart. So how do we honor Mozart's intentions in these pieces? By scrupulous care with dynamics, articulation, and structure (maybe even going as far as, with Gunther Schuller, making sure that crescendos start and end exactly where Mozart marked them)? Or by making the people in the audience sit up and take notice, happily reacting to the appearance of each tasty new theme, and feeling their own hearts beat along with Belmonte's?

    A new Big Idea would be very welcome, at least to me -- a reintroduction of performer freedom, but to what now would be considered a drastic degree. You can find examples of this in old recordings, especially by singers. Look at Ivan Kozlovsky, one of the two star tenors at the Bolshoi Opera during Stalin's rule. To judge from films and recordings, he's clearly one of the greatest tenors who ever lived, measured simply by technique, breath control, range (all the way up to an F above high C, with Cs and C sharps thrown out like thrilling candy), phrasing, and expression. (He's not well known outside Russia, though, for two likely reasons: He never sang on our side of the Iron Curtain, and he only sang in Russian.)

    But what makes him most unusual -- and, to many people, quite improper -- is that he sang at least some of the time like a pop singer, using lots of falsetto, almost crooning at times, and above all taking any liberty he pleased, slowing down and speeding up as the mood suited him. To my ears, he's mesmerizing when he does that. You can't (to bastardize an old cliche) take your ears off him. And when he does it in the Duke's opening solo in the duet with Gilda from Rigoletto, he nails the Duke's character as no other singer I've ever heard could do. You don't just theorize that the Duke is attractive to women; you feel it, and want to surrender to him yourself. Or, perhaps, run away, which is exactly the kind of dual reaction a man like that would really get.

    I'm reminded of Ellen Willis's classic line about Lou Reed singing "Heroin," which I'll paraphrase, not having it handy just now: You don't know whether to run to save him, or to plunge the needle into your own vein. Well, Kozlovsky isn't really that strong. He's in part just a sentimental entertainer. But what sentiment, and what entertainment! And what perfect singing. When he croons "O Mimi tu piu non torni" (in Russian, of course), some people might roll their eyes at the way he slows down at the peak of the phrase, but you can't ignore his genuine feeling, or his perfect control as he slowly dreams his voice into the lightest of pianissimos.

    Singing like that would be absolutely forbidden in opera today. No teacher, no coach, and no conductor would let any singer try it. And yet, if someone stepped out on the stage of the Met singing that way, the audience would go insane. The applause wouldn't end. And opera would come back to life.

    READER: What Do The Critics Want?
    By John Shaw
    posted @ 7:03 pm
    It’s interesting to see critics discussing the future of classical composition, because, as Wynne Delacoma and Jan Herman noted, critics almost never can predict the future... read more

    right on!
    By John Rockwell
    posted @ 7:16 pm
    Right ON, Greg. Eloquently done. But since you and I have written this so often, perhaps you didn't bother to mention it again. I did, in my initial posting, but added "enough said" and hastened on, so self-evident did it seem. There was in fact music in the 50's and 60's and onwards that touched the broader culture as powerfully as did films, and that came from jazz and popular music. No one in this blog conversation has really gotten into that idea, except for Alex Ross with his reference to minimalism in rock. Maybe most classical critics don't like this music, or feel unqualified to deal with it. But it's there, and the best of it touches other artists in other fields and our society and the world as powerfully as any other art. That's a big idea, all right. To be continued at this fall's Music Critics Association symposium at Columbia University.

    A Potential Goldmine?
    By Alex Ross
    posted @ 7:57 pm

    John, I'm certainly not suggesting that Wagner and Brahms are in some way interchangeable. I'm simply saying that they are speaking a similar language, especially in terms of harmony. The enormous individuality of each is constructed out of more or less identical building blocks. The half-diminished seventh, for example. Schoenberg, who venerated Brahms and Wagner in equal measure, could attest to this, I think.

    Picking up from John's later post, I'll go out on a limb with a claim that I cut from my initial post: the big, scene-setting ideas in music of the last thirty or forty years have really appeared in popular music. It's there that you get a sense of kinetic technical progress. James Brown funk, Beatles psychedelia, punk rock, New Wave, Sonic Youth indie rock, hip-hop sampling, nineties electronica: one great leap forward after another, in an incredibly short span of time.

    The question is, what does all this mean for composers? Is it extraneous, irrelevant? Or is it a potential gold mine of musical ideas? I'd suggest that a coming-to-terms with recent pop history will be another major task for composers of the near future. What to do with pop is an extraordinarily complex question: each of these musics is an art form unto itself, and the old Milhaud-Stravinsky model of the classical flaneur promenading condescendingly through jazz will no longer hold. It's not about imitating the inimitable surface of pop music, but mining it for deep material. Thoughts?

    Jotting II: Personally, I’d rather not get a telephone call from Stalin.
    By Charles Ward
    posted @ 9:24 pm

    As the perplexity about serialism has threaded its way through this thread – “a ghastly remembrance usually reserved for victims of political oppression,” commented Andrew Druckenbrod about composers who recall the dodecaphonic years – I’ve been mulling over Solomon Volkov’s recent book on Shostakovich and Stalin (in which telephone calls from Stalin were a clear signal of distress, even doom). Not Volkov’s description of the conflict per se but the “big idea” behind the epic battle. What drove Shostakovich to be willing to use his music as a means of subversion – to accept living perpetually on the edge of death? If we concentrate only on matters of style, we can’t answer such questions.

    So, why was it that serialism assumed such a vice-like grip after the Second World War? Why didn’t the other “isms” that Alex Ross listed retain their allure? Why did Copland abandon his populism, take a post-war stab at 12-tone and then fade from the compositional scene? Why, as Justin contends, did it become so hermetic (and dogmatic)? Why does the issue of serialism still loom so large in our discussion? Could the 10-million pound punch press grip of Stalinism on a key segment of 20th-century politics have had a role – just as it did with Shostakovich? Again, matters of style only can’t get to the essence.

    Classical music has more often been a “lagging indicator” of social/political/cultural life than a “leading indicator” (to borrow terms from the world of economics). Mozart got around to turning core human issues of the French revolution into musical expression, in The Marriage of Figaro, only three years before heads and blood started rolling in Paris’ streets.

    Beethoven was only slightly more timely with Napoleon.

    Or said another way, classical music has been pretty bad at capturing the white-hot heat of the moment. The process of distilling ideas worth expressing, conceptualizing the means to express them and them working out the final product leaves the composer coughing in the dust of the mad dash to the next hot thing (though Bernstein actually did get around to  psychoanalysis in Trouble in Tahiti).

    If we are interested in teasing out the ideas that could drive classical music in the near future, we might look at issues that can be distilled in the way Mozart turned the issue of the relationship between masters and servants into music that has transcended its time.

    In that vein I thought Justin’s comment that “cultural conflict and accommodation … is the issue of our time” striking. I’m not sure works that are overtly “about” conflict and accommodation can have staying power but ones that universalize the point could (the same goes for gender parity). I’m not a composer but I certainly would be interested in how the idea of accommodation might be turned into musical ideas – and how we would have to change out expectations about how a piece of music works.

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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 – at least on the surface – 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


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