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Classical Music Critics on the Future of Music

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


Tuesday, August 3

    Ideology and Idea
    By Justin Davidson
    posted @ 6:33 am

    Thanks, Doug, for prodding the conversation back into gear. I have no fear of ideas, big or small, so long as they don't turn into orthodoxies - so long, that is, as we are able to recognize the variety within them. In the general retreat from modernism, we have done a lot of good music a great disservice by answering one orthodoxy with another. Modernism was (and is) not monolithic, and rejecting it as a bad idea makes no more sense than it did to insist that music needed to conform stylistically to be "relevant." In other words, there was an orthodoxy, but also many composers working in the margins. 

    If critics are unwilling to wave the flag for a big idea it's partly because we still remember those distortions. Who wants to be remembered as the critic who ignored what was really going on because he (or she) was in thrall to a particular school? Like Alex, I want to be able to keep my ears alert to a wide variety of styles and respond to great music wherever it may come from. (And I'm delighted to add a couple of items to my must-hear list.)

    Having said that, Doug, you're quite right that we needn't worry about being tyrannized by ideas, only by ideologies. Ideas can coexist, ideologies can't. So I would hope that by the end of the week we could get some clarity without being reductive. That's why I made my somewhat pedantic proposal yesterday, in the hope that we could at least begin to itemize some of the ideas that are in circulation and connect them to actual composers.

    Greg: I take your point that formalism was not unique to modernism or music (and that not all composers were modernists), though I think the level of technical self absorption during the 50s was extraordinarily high. Bach's devices were all tied to a big extra-musical idea: glorifying God. Skipping ahead: Clement Greenberg was a Marxist, and for him paint on canvas was part of an explicitly political agenda. The abstract expressionists themselves were brimming with big ideas about spirituality, Jung, myth and the unconscious. Certainly for Pollock, technique was a means for highly personalized self expression.

    You're quite right to point out that in the 50s, the big formalist idea was countered by the big anti-formalist idea of spontaneity. Which gets me back to what I was saying earlier: As critics we have to be able to hold opposites and contradictions in our heads at the same time. As to why formalism took hold in music so much more strongly than in other arts, I've always thought it was partly a defense mechanism. In the U.S., anyway, composers needed a university berth and had to give music some academic respectability, so they treated it as a field of research, endowing it with a level of technical intricacy that would make its secrets unavailable to non-specialists. Provosts and university presidents, accustomed to dealing with people whose fields they had no clear understanding of, were happy to accord composers the same esoteric respect. It's more complicated than that, of course, but I don't want to stray too far away from the present.

    I won't argue with you about Philip Glass - that's an old prejudice of mine. Likewise with L'avventura.

    For Kyle, Doug and Alex
    By John Rockwell
    posted @ 7:11 am

    Kyle -- I know some of your composers, often from decades past, and I'll dip into your links with pleasure (sounds vaguely icky, that). My gripe, and this is the last time I'll say it, is that there is SO MUCH MORE new music out there than just the composers to whom you have devoted your critical career. You're such a smart guy, so why not spread your wings? Starting with some of the composers Alex mentions (not that your're unfamiliar with those works, but why not make them part of your mission, too?), and going on to all the wider worlds of music spinning away out there in the sonic universe?

    Doug and Alex -- I'm with you, Doug, on big ideas; music, especially for anyone who uses words to embrace it, is a constant dialogue between sound and thought, and not just thought about sound. Ideas don't dictate; they reflect and annoy and inspire. But they're important, from ideas about how a particular piece should work to the place of one's work in the larger spectrum of new music to politics and science and philosophy and religion. Sticking to indivdual composers and their works is of course vital, too. But not in an intellectual void, as Alex knows full well; he eptiomizes that kind of context in everything he writes. We need a constant grounding of intellectual conceits into the hard reality of actual compositions. But we need ideas to lift us out of sonic myopia.

    READER: Big Idea? Not
    By Nicholas Kenyon
    posted @ 7:18 am

    Whether or not I qualify (as an ex-music critic) to contribute to this fascinating discussion, let me just make one comment: it is absolutely inconceivable that there could or should any longer be a ‘big idea’ or a prevailing musical mainstream. A century of recording and broadcasting, increasingly making all musics available to all, has completely changed our concept of musical tradition and influence in ways it is impossible to underestimate.

    It is now generations since there has been a single idea or mainstream for any composer to react to or develop or fight against. Creative decisions today take place in an utterly different context from those in the past.

    READER: Glad to be that somebody
    By David Carter
    posted @ 7:19 am

    "The musical equivalent would have been a composer who, in a white heat of creation, spewed out music -- but writing it down, not improvising it in concert. (Of course, somebody's sure to point out some composer who did just this." - Greg Sandow

    I'd like to be that somebody - Kaikhosru Shapurji Sorabji (1892 - 1988) an enormously prolific composer, who completed more than one hundred works between 1915 and 1984.  read more

    The Weimar Identity
    By Alex Ross
    posted @ 7:39 am

    Quoth Rockwell: "But [ideas] are important, from ideas about how a particular piece should work to the place of one's work in the larger spectrum of new music to politics and science and philosophy and religion. Sticking to indivdual composers and their works is of course vital, too. But not in an intellectual void, as Alex knows full well." Point taken. I don't mean to act the Pure Fool here. It's just that insisting on the individuality of compositional voices is pretty close to the core of my philosophy as a critic, and is in itself an idea worth mentioning.

    A new topic possibly worth touching on: Why exactly did 20th-century music seem to suffer in excess from dogmas and orthodoxies, polemicizing and politiciking? After all, all this same cogitation went on in other art forms. Clement Greenberg has been mentioned — a scary idea-bully if ever there was one. Yet abstract expressionism and other movements he championed had a powerful public impact, and the personality of each painter trumped the ideas attached. What went wrong in music? If, indeed, something went wrong — perhaps there are old-school modernists out there who wish to respond to the routine modernist-bashing that's gone on in my posts and others. My answer would have something to do with music's perennial envy of other forms — its self-image of being backward and parochial and slow. Wagner's writings rage eloquently on this topic. Yet musical history suggests that "big ideas" must arrive in the wake of, rather than in advance of, long-developing technical ideas, such as, say the interplay of monody and dissonance that led Monteverdi to proclaim the "seconda prattica." In the 20th century, composers started brainstorming big ideas without first working them out in practice. The result was an overebullient marketplace, to take a phrase from Alan Greenspan, tied to products no one really wanted or needed. That's what we're all wary of now.

    When I look at music today, I think back to Berlin in the twenties — a period that uncannily resembles the one we're in now, with so many composers talking about breaking away from academic practice and engaging with pop music, new technological media, wider social trends. When I read Kyle's definitions of postminimalism — “the same weight and density as Middle Baroque music, like Corelli, but with non-functional harmony … the structural basis is rhythm, not harmony, …. tonal, mostly consonant (or at least never tensely dissonant), and usually based on a steady pulse)” — I immediately thought to myself, Hindemith! Although Kyle himself reminds me more of Hanns Eisler. (A compliment in my book.) The Weimar composers were grappling with the same intractable problem that consumes composers now — how do we operate in a rapid-fire capitalist-democratic marketplace that lusts for the hotness of pop? Do we try to throw ourselves into the thick of the melee, or do we bow out of it and cultivate our own garden? I'm all for the first possibility, but I'm aware of its dangers. Schoenberg once scowled that all these populists would end up speaking to a mass public consisting of each other, and, ya know, he was kinda right. Fianlly, needless to say, I hope to God this Weimar Republic analogy doesn't track too closely.

    To Justin: Good Idea
    By Douglas McLennan
    posted @ 7:44 am
    I think your idea of a kind of list of ideas/movements is a good one. It seems there's a call here for a bit more specificity so at least we've got something concrete to thrash over. Today I'll make a database for such a section as you describe and people can begin filling it if they choose...

    I Go Where the Money Rolls
    By Kyle Gann
    posted @ 9:20 am
    [T]here is SO MUCH MORE new music out there than just the composers to whom you have devoted your critical career. You're such a smart guy, so why not spread your wings? - Rockwell

    So, why do I limit myself to merely the 800 or 900 composers who make art rock, minimalism, sampling collages, just-intonation music, expanded equal-temperament music, plunderphonics, postminimalism, interactive computer music, classical/jazz fusions, wall-of-sound music, performance art, new musical instruments, MAX/MSP music, free improvisation, sound installations, sound sculpture, totalism, ambient music, mechanical instrument music, conceptual music, and process music? Why not be like other critics and limit myself to the 40 guys who get orchestra commissions? I dunno.... convenience, I guess.

    READER: John Rockwell on Gann and Ross, and Greg, too
    By Arthur J. Sabatini
    posted @ 10:10 am

    When John Rockwell gripes that Kyle Gann has devoted his career to certain composers and suggests that he pick up on the composers Alex Ross mentions, he indirectly brings up a point regarding musical worlds and critical positions that needs further discussion. From my reading over decades, I find Gann to have a far more thorough social and historist sense of contemporary composer's careers and the specific trajectories of their music than John Rockwell... read more

    Posting III. Music as personal insult
    By Wynne Delacoma
    posted @ 12:33 pm
    I have to weigh in on the confounding and fascinating question that Greg and others have raised about music of the 50’s--why “a lot of the most notable, new and above all prestigious music of that time appeared to be largely about itself...And why did people back then and..now accept this development as something valid, important, good or even reasonable?’’ To me, that question always prompts another that is equally confounding. Why do so many audience members, especially at symphony programs, become so enraged by a piece of new music they don’t like? Disapproval would be one thing; we are all entitled to our opinions. But what I often encounter is a sense of boiling anger, of having been duped, of having had irretrievable hours stolen from their lives.They walk out of the concert hall ready to kill. It baffles me because these same concertgoers obviously are drawn to classical music in general. They are sufficiently interested to buy a ticket and come to the concert hall. (It’s been so long since going to the symphony was required for high social status, at least in Chicago, that I’m discounting entirely the possibility that such listeners are mere status-seekers.) Often they are also the ones who regularly attend theater and dance concerts.They trot off to a new play or a program of new choreography knowing full well that they might not like what they see. They expect to see new things, and they don’t mind taking a risk. When they walk into the concert hall, however, an encounter with work they don’t like becomes a personal insult. Why is that? I’m not playing blame the audience here. I’m just wondering what it is about the classical music world--from symphony hall architects to composers, performers and, yes indeed, us critics--that has led to such profound distrust of the new in a segment of the audience. Probably the key to answering that question lies in the answer to Greg’s original question. Perhaps music that is primarily about itself, without the overarching spiritual framework, for example, that suffuses Bach’s work, eventually becomes as tiresome as a self-absorbed dinner guest. Why it became so dominant, as Greg point out--that is the question. P.S. Kyle, thanks for clarifying the composer-bashing point.

    To Arthur Sabatini
    By Alex Ross
    posted @ 1:39 pm
    Arthur Sabatini writes: "I would suggest Rockwell grab a Metro Card to visit more composers at work, pick up his walking stick, and use his expense account to get on the road and not just in the concert hall." Actually, Rockwell needs the Metrocard to get to Lincoln Center, not Soho and Tribeca. Read his book "All American Music" if you want to find out a little more about what he's done and heard over the years. For myself, I don't laud a composer such as Thomas Adčs because Lincoln Center tells me to. When I first wrote about him in 1995, he was unknown in this country, and I'm not going to stop writing about him just because he has achieved a measure of fame. Indeed, the connection that he and Adams and Golijov and some other major talents have somehow achieved with broad audiences is to my bourgeois, uptown, carnation-wearing, walking-stick-toting taste kind of a big deal in itself.

    By John Rockwell
    posted @ 2:24 pm
    Arthur Sabatini: Me, concentrating too much on individual pieces at the expense of context? Me, Mr. Context, Mr. Cultural Historian? And actually, whether traveling uptown or downtown, I take cabs more than subways. My vast Times salary, you know, plus the difficulty of negotiating myself into the dark pits of the subway with my walking stick.

    READER: Seeking Multiple Judgments
    By Garth Trinkl
    posted @ 2:30 pm
    I must admit to being irked by Kyle Gann's comment about many American music critics limiting their interests to "the 40 guys [sic] who get orchestra commissions".  I hardly believe this to be true. Is it?  And what is wrong with Lou Harrison, Philip Glass, Steve Reich, John Adams, Ingram Marshall,  Gloria Coates, Tan Dun, Anne LeBaron, Wynton Marsalis, Susan Botti, and many other American musical creators receiving major orchestral commissions following long years on avant-guard new music circuits [or jazz circuits]?  read more

    READER: "Big Ideas" - Which Direction?
    By Steve Layton
    posted @ 2:32 pm

    Random aesthetic questions (wrapping a few assumptions) that I've been turning over ever since reading Leonard B. Meyers' "Music, The Arts and Ideas" many years ago: Which metaphorical direction do ideas have to be in to become "big"? "Up"? "Out"? Against"? We can call anything a work of art; what kind of attribute are we imbuing it with, that a moment before the same object wasn't given? read more

    READER: All-American Music
    By John Shaw
    posted @ 2:45 pm

    John Rockwell’s book meant something to me when I read it 20 years ago, as a music-poetry-theater obsessed college student for whom high-low distinctions had never existed, growing up in a bourgeois family where my mom and my grandma were equally enthralled by the classical music and the show tunes they played on piano.  I read about Ives and Varese in books on my parents’ shelf, took piano lessons, played punk rock, loved Ornette Coleman & Ellington & N. Young & L. Anderson & Art Ensemble & John Cage & Nancarrow & Mozart & J. Strauss & Sousa, and all of this was normal to my family and my friends (well, few friends dug Sousa or Strauss); Rockwell’s book confirmed my experience.  I tried to re-read it a few years ago & just couldn’t get into it.   read more

    Let's cool it
    By Scott Cantrell
    posted @ 3:06 pm

    I'm apparently not alone in feeling that too much of this has degenerated into one-upsmanship and looking down noses. Let's have disagreement, fine, but the condescending tone of at least one contributor hardly illuminates anything except--well, we won't go there. No wonder readers don't like critics.

    I wonder if Susan McClary wouldn't dub our whole "next big idea" a hopelessly patriarchal concept. I'm not prepared to follow her ideas all the way, but she's onto something important.

    Raising gender and sexuality issues in music isn't next big idea, but it's not yet exhausted.

    Shifting Ground
    By John Rockwell
    posted @ 3:39 pm

    I agree with much of what John Shaw writes about how the ground has shifted since "All American Music" came out 21 years ago. Not sure it's shifted QUITE 180 degrees, but the point is certainly well taken. Sorry he (you) thought I was coasting in Seattle. For the record, I had prepared, but I've found that reading from notes makes for a more spontaneous talk than reading from a prepared text.

    And I definitely agree with Scott's latest posting, about civility.  

    READER: Mr. Context
    By Arthur J. Sabatini
    posted @ 7:14 pm
    Well, admittedly, John Rockwell, I do not read everything you write, so I will defer to other commentators. But, while you might think you are Mr. Context, your reviews, not feature writing, too often become strongly evaluative. I think Gann & Ross are more artist oriented in their writing. That is not a problem, however, unless your intent is to be more historical than judgemental, etc. In any case, I still do not see the basis for stating that Gann (or anyone of the principle writers involved in this discussion) do not hear enough or write about a breadth of music.

    READER: apologies
    By John Shaw
    posted @ 7:15 pm
    I agree with Scott Cantrell too, and apologize for my sharing my misplaced, presumptuous anger about Mr. Rockwell’s presentation in Seattle a couple months ago. His graciousness in response humbles me. If the cultural ground has shifted – probably not 180 degrees, true – Mr. Rockwell would probably not be remiss in thinking his work had something to do with that shift. Which seemed to be at least part of his goal in the book.


    We’re all here because we love music. As Ms. Delacoma has pointed out in her post about listener anger towards Music-One-Dislikes, music goes deep into people’s hearts and souls. It’s hot stuff. I, for one, need to make my peace with the truth that different people deal with it differently.

    READER: Critical Civility
    By AC Douglas
    posted @ 7:16 pm

    Scott Cantrell wrote: "I'm apparently not alone in feeling that too much of this has degenerated into one-upsmanship and looking down noses. Let's have disagreement, fine, but the condescending tone of at least one contributor hardly illuminates anything except--well, we won't go there. No wonder readers don't like critics." And John Rockwell commented: "And I definitely agree with Scott's latest posting, about civility."

    Interesting. That fraying of the edges of civility among the professionals here seemed to me a most welcome sign of critical good health, and the very thing that made this symposium's exchanges (among the professionals) so encouraging... read more

    Frustration and obscurity
    By Justin Davidson
    posted @ 8:54 pm

    It seems to me that the sniping is a sign of frustration at how difficult it is to deal with the topic that Doug set for us. I wrote a column today about this blog and what struck me was how much of the discussion has been taken up by obsessive list making. One person offers Duckworth, another counters with Auerbach a third pipes up with Coates. I'm glad for all the tips, and I'm compiling a listening list of my own, but by scouring the corners of the Kitchen and exploring the Seattle avant-garde for ever more names, we may be missing the obvious. We're behaving like Albanians in a suburban mega-mall: Overwhelmed by choice and variety, we grab at what looks cool. Rather than select, we accumulate: We've developed the catalogue as critique.

    I suspect, though, that despite this collective disorientation, most of us might agree that John Adams is one of the two or three most important, prolific and germane composers in the United States. His techniques are consistent, his trajectory clear, his style in constant evolution, his mastery unquestionable and he's certainly grappling with the issues of our time (Klinghoffer, anybody?). Can't we devote more than a passing reference to him? Looking for the current big thing, or the next one, without dealing with Adams seems perverse.

    Few critics discover new talents. We do not, by and large, conduct the equivalent of artists' studio visits. Mostly we rely on presenters and performers to sift through the mountains of novelty and put their own reputations at the service of an unknown composer's. Often those people do a very good job. By the time a composer's work is being performed at Carnegie Hall or at Disney Hall, that person has likely put in some time in lofts and basements. Bulletin: Uptown and downtown have merged. It was John Rockwell, after all, who set the tone for Lincoln Center Festival, which has devoted multi-part tributes to Steve Reich, Meredith Monk, Ornette Coleman and Elvis Costello. Carnegie Hall recently commissioned pieces from Lisa Bielawa and Michael Gordon.

    So we might do well - here and in the "Music Since 1990" database that Doug set up - to wonder whether the best place to search for the zeitgeist is in the margins of an already marginal art.

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 – 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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