[NOTE: If you’re here from a link at New Music Box, you might want to check out my response to that article as well.]
[UPDATE BELOW] My journey into the very heart of musical Europe provides me with a renewed opportunity to reflect on how happy I am to no longer be a music critic, no matter how happy I once was to work as one. The day was when I would have attended every event of the ISCM’s New Music Days 2013, taken names and scrupulous notes, mentally organized the event into its own little symmetrical Theater of Memory, and presented its digested evidence to you as grandly and unanswerably indicative of The Times We’re Living In; but no longer. Now I am relieved to skip the events that look tiresome or simply too inconveniently late in the evening, walk out on concerts I’m not enjoying, and afterward amuse myself by sketching an old man’s vague impressions, if I decide to do so – or even possibly write them up halfway and decide not to publish at all. I often wonder if there is another composer in the history of the world of whom people can so truly say, as one would say of me, “He has spoken enough; he has explained more than we needed explained.” Only Wagner comes to mind, and he would certainly have a more benign reputation today if he had taken many more opportunities to keep his damn trap shut and his opinions to himself. Posterity may well say the same of me, and perhaps we need not even wait for posterity.
In any case, I went to Vienna with a sense that I was being invited behind enemy lines with a role to play, and as always on such occasions (especially when free trans-Atlantic airfare is involved) I played it. But my scandals are whimsical and polite these days, not so dramatic or confrontational as they used to be. I try to project an air of not knowing where I am or what I’m doing, just an innocent who doesn’t dream that his anodyne heresies, born of ignorance and inexperience, could give offense. I had never before had any contact with the International Society for Contemporary Music, which certainly has a distinguished 90-year history of presenting new music, but which seems to have acquired by my time a rather musty and narrow reputation. Friends of mine who have long experience with the organization and its traveling annual festivals explained to me that the closer the events are culturally and geographically to Darmstadt, the more prickly, academic, and monochromatic the music involved tends to be. Vienna, by those standards, was in the neighborhood. There are certainly ISCM regulars who are trying to liven the organization up and make it more representative of the totality of what’s going on in new music around the globe, and who freely admitted to me, in private, that the music I heard – and again, I emphasize that I missed more performances than I attended – sounded like it had emerged from a time capsule last open to the air in 1973, even if most of the composers implicated were not yet born by that stale date.
All the more honor, then, to Christian Utz, Nina Polaschegg, and Bruno Strobl for sensing that the annual festival is in need of some self-reflection, and for organizing a concomitant conference on musical aesthetics to provide some perspective. While the music (that I heard) did come from a pretty tiny and dark corner of the spectrum, the conference participants – besides myself, Sandeep Bhagwati from Montreal, Heekyung Lee from Seoul, Andreas Engstrom from Sweden, Alper Maral from Istanbul, Ivan Siller from Bratislava, and others – evoked a far wider and more diverse world, one which the copious and generally enthusiastic audience seemed deeply relieved to have acknowledged. Bhagwati in particular, playing with more authority a role that I once might have attempted myself, scoffed at the idea (brought up by a participant) that the music we heard represented a “critical” type of composing, or that it was a music of continual revolution. Modernist new music, he argued, is a well-defined style like any other tradition, and its practitioners are well instructed in how to satisfy the demands of admittance to its professional mainstream. It said everything about the cultural moment that some in attendance seemed offended by the remark, which others gave a smattering of delighted applause.
The music may have been a matter of taste, but there was little disagreement about its uniformity of idiom. For one thing, what used to be, and apparently still are, called “extended techniques” were ubiquitous. If a flute appeared, so did toneless key clicks. If an accordion, it was slapped and squeezed tonelessly just for the air whooshing. If a clarinet, it was usually taken apart, perhaps used to blow bubbles in a glass of water. If a piano, the pianist disappeared into its interior. It is a little late in history to object to such practices, but it has always seemed to me that what we learned, from the explosion of them in the 1970s, was that they are distracting and seem silly when used sparingly, as punctuation. In other words, a pianist knocking on the outside of the piano in between keyboard phrases can be irritating, but Cage’s song The Wonderful Widow of Eighteen Springs achieves a refreshing poetry by having its entire accompaniment tapped on the external frame of the instrument. If you’re going to use those things, frankly base the whole piece around them. It’s the frequent back-and-forth that creates inelegant theater, and nearly every chamber piece reveled in exactly that. We tried out a lot of crazy things in the ‘70s, and a lot of them didn’t work very well; but there is a large swath of new music for which “didn’t work” is not an allowable concept, and all those embarrassing techniques have just been added to the composer’s mandatory professional vocabulary. I could say the 1970s called, and they want their silly music back – but why would they?
More generally, all of the music I heard was (needless to say) atonal, impenetrable, continuously varied, scrupulously free from minimalist or pop influence, and any impression of harmony, melody, or even memorable moment or event was assiduously avoided. I kept hearing all week about one piece I missed, which created a huge collective sense of relief in the audience by employing major triads. The orchestral music in particular was a panoply of splashes of timbre, violin glisses, celesta washes, brass splats, wind tremolos in tempestuous profusion, and afterward I wish I could have played excerpts back for the audience and challenged them to tell the pieces apart; I couldn’t have. Nominally the youngish composers hailed from all over the world, but a friend, looking through the festival program, brought to my attention that they had nearly all studied in Germany; it couldn’t have been clearer that they were writing the way they had been taught to. The way it works, my friend explained, is that each ISCM chapter makes a call for pieces, and, out of dozens, chooses six to submit to the festival committee, which then chooses from among those for the program. Thus the musical atmosphere is directly attributable to those who do the choosing, and previous festivals, I was told, have sometimes been considerably more varied and inviting than this one was.
One piece, however, stood apart from everything else. The Klangforum Wien, incredibly well commanded by Enno Poppe, played Mad Dog by Bernd Richard Deutsch (b. 1977), of which I can find no recording, but of course there’s a YouTube of a previous performance by the Die Reihe Ensemble. It struck me as kind of a madly splintered neoclassicism, an ironic neo-concerto-grosso laden with spectralist moments, at once entertaining and baffling, in the most pleasant sense. But what really baffled me were the negative comments I heard about it from Austrian musicians the next morning. When I attempted to praise it they were reflexively apologetic that it was programmed at all: “Oh, he won an award, so we had to include it.” “It seemed too much a kind of cartoon music.” “The players love that kind of music because it shows off what they can do well and fills the house, but it was too much written for the audience.” “The duet for violin and cello that came afterward [which I found strident, limited, and predictable] was much more multidimensional.” Too much written for the audience?! I’M the freakin’ audience!, I wanted to scream, but I was a guest in their country and behaved myself. Watch the YouTube, 21 minutes long in three movements: it’s hardly an easy or noticeably accessible piece, and yet it was lively and intriguing ear-candy compared to everything else I heard there. What a horribly austere, severe world to have to live in, in which the slightest pleasure given to the listener occasions such tut-tutting for its deplorable pandering. What a world turned upside down, in which music is approved only to the extent that one receives no thrill from it whatever and remembers nothing afterward.
It was into this heavy, monochrome, classically and unapologetically modernist context that I tossed what I had accurately intuited would be my stylistic time bomb. After all, I was the decadent American capitalist dog; my sadly commercial lack of taste wouldn’t be held against me personally, and might even provide some schadenfreude. I’ve already given you the core of my paper, though I both expanded it and took out a few things. But at the end, to illustrate what I said would be a kind of music that could only come from the U.S. these days, I played audio examples by three New York composers the same age, interestingly, as Deutsch: Corey Dargel (b. 1977) (click to hear the song I played), William Brittelle (b. 1976), and Judd Greenstein (though I played only a recording of his piece Change, not the brilliant video of it I’m linking you to here). I fully and correctly anticipated that some in the crowd would not consider this music at all, which is pretty funny when you think about it. Worldwide, I think a million out of any million and one people would be far more likely to identify Dargel’s charming song as a piece of music than they would the Austrian woman humorlessly blowing through the middle section of her clarinet into a glass of water, but in the topsy-turvy world of European new music, it was the busy noise pieces that are considered important music and the tonal song with rhyming lyrics that’s not so defined. After my talk one German-accented man objected with some anguish (and came up to me to repeat the observation after the panel) that he could hear no “soul-searching” in the music I played, that it just reminded him of a shopping mall. Now leaving aside whether soul-searching is something one wants to hear in every damn piece of music one listens to, what’s wrong with shopping malls? We build them, we spend time in them, don’t they deserve to be acknowledged in our art at some point? Is music only supposed to inhabit some wilderness of our imagination, and never sully itself with the actual, allegedly tawdry spaces where we spend our lives? And does, say, Vivaldi’s Seasons offer evidence of soul-searching? In any case, among the people I hung out with for the week, the comment became a running joke, and I swore that if I could find a mall that played Dargel’s delightful songs on the PA system, I would never shop anywhere else.
The sharp divide in opinion, interestingly enough, seemed to lie between English-speaking attendees (Americans, Canadians, Australians, New Zealanders – there didn’t seem to be any Brits, though since so many Continentals speak English with an impeccable British accent I can’t swear to it) and non-Enlish-speakers. One young Canadian woman came up to me later to ask where she could find more of Judd Greenstein’s music, and an American one to tell me that she had run back to her hotel and downloaded a Corey Dargel CD on iTunes, leading me to realize that I really ought to be playing my own music at these gigs, instead of providing free PR for these jokers who aren’t likely to do anything for my career.
Nina Polaschegg had begun the conference by saying that she organized it because we don’t do nearly enough talking about musical aesthetics, about why we like some pieces and don’t like others. As you can imagine, I completely agree. I mentioned in my paper that young composers these days don’t like arguing aesthetic viewpoints. A couple of young composers in the audience felt put upon by that and objected, but as a friend mentioned to me afterward, both of them basically said, “We do have aesthetic discussions, we just don’t like to argue,” which merely restated my point. I think that if we studiously ignore what makes some pieces better than others and some styles more fertile than others, we will be pretty much condemned to blunder along making music that isn’t meaningful or enjoyable, like so much of the crap I heard last week. After all, start enunciating these aesthetic positions out loud, and some of the most absurd ones just fall apart as you pronounce the words. And it was good for me to get a strong sense of why Germans and Austrians really object to the vein of American music I champion; we get the same objections at home, but no one dares articulate them. To deafly continue in traditions that no one is enjoying, just because everyone is too polite to say anything, is a sad option.
UPDATE: I’m not going to rewrite this entry, because I like it, and most people got it. But I have to say I’m astonished at how many people, some of them friends I respect, completely misread it. It has been taken as a blanket condemnation of European music, a rant against modernism, some grandiose claim for the superiority of American music. It is none of those things. It is a description of a specific festival that was criticized by many people, even those within the organization, for being too one-sidedly homogenous for an event that purported to represent music from around the world. When a festival is curated as a kind of competition, and seven pieces in a row sound so similar that one can hardly tell them apart, it is evident that the jurying committee had a very strong aesthetic bias. Maybe some people think that’s fine and the way it should be, but the perception that it was a problem did not originate with me. I believe, though no one said so, that I was invited, as were some of the other speakers, as a corrective, an outside perspective. If so, I applaud the impulse. That the American pieces I played would not “fit in” I could guess in advance, but I was surprised that the most interesting German composition was also considered controversial – which shows what a narrow framework the festival followed. I reported here on criticisms that were made by a wide range of participants. Yet some readers, who didn’t attend the festival or conference, took these criticisms as being entirely my own invention, and also leaped to a conclusion that I must have misrepresented the festival according to my own biases. I wish they would click on Deutsch’s video and hear the exciting European modernism I’m defending, but they seem to prefer to keep their own caricature of me intact. I don’t know how to respond to such gross misreading, let alone evidence-free charges of falsification. As the saying goes, I can write it for you, but I can’t understand it for you. If someone is determined to misread and misrepresent me, he will do so.
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