Mystery score

Mystery score

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Heather Mac Donald Makes the Same Mistake as Terry Teachout

Alex Ross quotes her on his blog: the audience "could not be more unequivocal" in rejecting new and modern music. Mac Donald, whose full article is here, fails to realize that the so-called classical music audience is highly segmented. The NYPO's subscription audience might flee when they see the names Stravinsky and Janacek on a program, but eager single-ticket buyers snapped up every last ticket to the recent performances of Le Grande Macabre. The audience is there, the programming, not always.

And keep in mind some numbers Alex published a few years back: in 1970, New York City had two (2) new music ensembles. Today it has 50.

30 comments:

Joe Barron said...

Who the heck still writes modernist music anymore? They're arguing about a couple of guys in their 80s and 90s, and in the case of one guy we could all name, over 100. The fashion among younger composers is post-minimalism and audience-friendly neoromanticism. The latter might keep subscription audiences from grumbling, but it's definitely keeping me out of the concert hall.

The real issue these people should be asking themselves is, what next? Western musical language has been developed to its farthest extent, and the coming generation is at a loss about how to be original. Where do you go once Cage has demonstrated than anything can be music? Almost everything I hear these days mines the past without adding much of anything new. There's your problem, Alex. What will be the next big thing/ Can there even be a next big thing at this point, or are we condemned to an indefinite future of pastiche and retro styles?

bgn said...

I think that many post-minimalist composers would argue that they're developing musical language in another direction (principally rhythmic)...

But what bewilders me about such arguments is what people mean by "modern" and therefore unacceptable music. I mean, I can understand people being put off by Carter or Ligeti, even if I'm not put off by them myself. But Stravinsky, Bartok, Janacek, Britten, Tippett, Shostakovich, Reich, Adams...??? I can't help thinking that there's something other than the presence or absence of tonality going on here.

Paul Muller said...

Joe asks for the next big thing: music created for the hearing and not necessarily for performance. Most people listen to music downloaded from the Internet - and the tools are now available to even the casual musician to create a passable-sounding piece without need of players, concert halls, patrons, technicians and administrators. Liberated from the traditional process of commissioning, composing, rehearsing and performing - music as art will take off in new communities forming on the Internet to create, collaborate and present.

500 years ago we made folk music for the people in our village. 300 years ago, for our congregation in church. 250 years ago the concert hall came along and in the last 100 years the various electronic and broadcast media. It's all about creating for where the audience happens to be listening. And in the 21st century that is on-line.

See you there!

Anonymous said...

Lisa,

>> but eager single-ticket buyers snapped up every last ticket to the recent performances of Le Grande Macabre. The audience is there, the programming, not always.

Personally, I don't see why that should be viewed as a big deal. What are these attendance numbers really indicative of ? I'm sure that many went just to appear 'cultured'.

Call me an old fogey but unless someone has come to know and love many of the ESTABLISHED masterpieces of Western music, starting with, say, Josquin through Richard Strauss, we shouldn't be getting all excited about these attendance numbers to, let's face it, concerts of not terribly interesting (and often mediocre) 20th century music.

Michael Walsh said...

Anonymous, you have brethren throughout history who all complained about how modern music just didn't stack up against the "classics". You might check out Slonimky's A Lexicon of Musical Invective to see how the gatekeepers of the past railed against the nonsensical, heretical and "mediocre" works of such crackpots as Beethoven, Brahms, Wagner, Tchaikovsky, or the aforementioned Richard Strauss.

All in all, I find complaints about modern music to be cliched, unimaginative grumbling that just doesn't stack up against the true classics of whinging throughout history.

Joe Barron said...

>>Call me an old fogey ...

OK, you're an old fogy, and thank you for the opportunity. The statement that people went to the concert to appear cultured is simply presumptuous. You have no idea what was in people's heads, let alone proof of it. It may be true in some cases, but it's probably just as true in the case to people who force themselves sit through the Ring. Besides, it's a very old saw: you don't like the music, so you figure anyone who listens to it must have some ulterior motive. What the ticket sale proves, since you have to be told, is that an audience for the music exists, and Lisa put it forward as a living refutation of MacDonald's point.

Paul, thanks for your post. It's fine, as far as it goes, but the my question was, and is, what will it sound like? It might be true that anyone can make music online, but if the ideas expressed are just a rehash of the past, it doesn't necessarily mean better music. It just means too much music.

BTW, listened yesterday to my recordings of the Babbitt and Carter Clarinet Quintets yesterday, back to back. Ripping good stuff. Oh, but wait, no one likes this music ...

Paul Muller said...

"Paul, thanks for your post. It's fine, as far as it goes, but the my question was, and is, what will it sound like? It might be true that anyone can make music online, but if the ideas expressed are just a rehash of the past, it doesn't necessarily mean better music. It just means too much music."

Good points. Well for one thing, music not written for performance need not be constrained by practical things like how long a reed player might be expected to hold a note, reasonable tempos and note placement, or how far apart notes on a piano chord might be - or even how many hands are needed for a particular piano piece. Perhaps this will lead to a new sound or a fresh expression of musical ideas.

As for "too much music" I think the Internet helps us there: all that is needed is for a dozen like-minded musicians from anywhere in the world to find each other - and there will be a reason to create, collaborate and present.

For the first time in history, musicians are now in control of the means of production and the means of distribution - much like painters have always been. If the ideas are there, they can be expressed.

Joe Barron said...

Truly a workers' paradise ...

Michael Walsh said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Anonymous said...

Michael Walsh,

Bravo.

Excellent post.

Joe Barron said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Tom DePlonty said...

Michael Walsh: Does a language die once it stops adding new words?

Living languages never stop adding words. Words, phrases, and syntactic elements enter, leave, and mutate constantly. And living languages always resist attempts to stop this process - witness, for instance, the Academie Francaise's long, losing battle to keep Americanisms out of French.

To the extent a language is stable, it facilitates communication among those who speak it - and to the extent that it allows for innovation, it can adapt to its environment, and continue to be useful as that environment inevitably changes.

Stability and innovation are not at war. They are both required for a language to work.

Michael Walsh said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Michael Walsh said...

(Reposted as a correction of post #9.)

As a composer of "audience-friendly neo romanticism", I may be asking for it, but I have some issues with Mr. Barron's opening comment in this thread.

Western musical language has been developed to its farthest extent

This bugs me no end. Does a language die once it stops adding new words? Do we lose the ability to express worthy sentiments if we restrict ourselves to the vast palette we already have? Are painters hamstrung by a lack of new colors?

Where do you go once Cage has demonstrated than anything can be music?

That's not what Cage says to me. Cage's work shows the folly of defining as new the absence of anything old. It is a self-defeating campaign in which the avant-garde willfully consigns itself to oblivion, producing ever fainter and incoherent negatives of real art.

are we condemned to an indefinite future of pastiche and retro styles?

Just because iambic pentameter is an archaic artform doesn't mean it is a useless or ineffective device. The general association of it with one great artist means that to use the device might bring up unwarranted comparisons with that artist, any many won't take the risk. The same could be said of sonata-form or classical/romantic tonality.

A new style or form of expression can only say limited things at the outset, much like a child can only form basic thoughts, albeit with a very pure intensity. Some familiarity with the language must be acquired before it can say things with more detail and sophistication. Consequently, artists who want to say something beyond a primal scream need to use tools people are familiar with. If they're telling a story that's worth hearing, then the work will be worthy of the timeworn tools used to craft it.

A.C. Douglas said...

Joe Barron wrote: The real issue ... people should be asking themselves is, what next? Western musical language has been developed to its farthest extent, and the coming generation is at a loss about how to be original. Where do you go once Cage has demonstrated than anything can be music? Almost everything I hear these days mines the past without adding much of anything new. [...] What will be the next big thing. Can there even be a next big thing at this point, or are we condemned to an indefinite future of pastiche and retro styles?
--------------------------------------------

As long as composers today in their desperation "to be original" continue to ask, "What will be the next big thing," to that same extent will they continue to write nothing but inconsequential shit; shit obsessed with process and sound per se.

The question is NOT, ""What will be the next big thing." The question is, "Do I have anything to say musically that's of genuine substance no matter what uses I make of any and all styles and processes of music from Josquin to Carter?" If the answer to that question is Yes, then say it, and forget about "The Next Big Thing" as it's of no importance whatsoever. If the answer to that question is No, then pack up your bags, and get into another line of work as the composing of music is not for you.

Every composer writing today should have printed in large red letters and placed in a prominent place on the wall above his writing desk Schoenberg's, "There is still plenty of good music to be written in C Major." It will give him the perspective he needs to write real music instead of racking his brains to discover "The Next Big Thing", or, if he's incapable of doing so, convince him to give up composing music entirely as a hopeless enterprise where he's concerned.

ACD

Anonymous said...

ACD,

I wholheartedly agree with those sentiments, but why did you write:

'from Josquin to Carter' ?

Josquin was one of the giants of Western music. Carter though is one of those composers who most definitely is (was) concerned with process and sound per se.

(And Carter most certainly wrote a good deal of inconsequential sh*t)

You really shouldn't mention them in the same sentence.

Bruce Hodges said...

Au contraire, I think Josquin and Carter are fine mentioned together. Time will tell, but I think Carter is already on his way to being included in the pantheon of "world's greatest composers."

Anonymous said...

And you, Bruce, have always struck me as a member of the usual "NEW CLASSICAL MUSIC IS AWESOME" clique that leaps at the chance to defend practically any modernist. As usual, no one wants to talk about the low-browed elephant in the room.

I have no problem with people who want to spend their creative prime manufacturing nonsense and calling it 'art music' - there is always going to be some bloke who is inexplicably convinced that in the course of this crap 'new areas of imagination' are being opened-up for him. Good, good. But is it really fair that the tax-payer be asked to keep this particular 'artist's (whatever that means) 'ideas' afloat? Couldn't this guy's heroic crusade against melody/tonality/expectation/ears proceed on weeknights in his bedroom with a nice copy of Boulez 'Eclat' ?

Bruce Hodges said...

Erm, I don't think there's any "clique," other than those people who genuinely think new music IS awesome. And I don't feel the need to "defend" any particular school of compositional thought. The great thing about composers in the 21st century is that there are more avenues open to them than ever before. I don't listen to contemporary music because it gets me status; I listen because it's damn exciting stuff.

And I truly--honestly--have no idea what you mean by the "low-browed elephant in the room."

And as far as any "crusade" against "melody/tonality/expectation/ears"...I'm certainly not signed on to any such venture, nor do I expect to buy a ticket for any such voyage in the near future.

Joe Barron said...

I don't listen to contemporary music because it gets me status; I listen because it's damn exciting stuff.

Hear hear, well-spoken, Bruce! (To quote the Australian philosophy department.) My only point was that I'm not hearing much from younger composers that thrills me as much as the high modernism of early Schoenberg through, oh, say, the last thing Elliott Carter wrote. The most attractive new symphony I've heard in a long while is Alla Pavlova's Third, and much of that could have been written by Mahler. To Mike, I can say only that I hope you're right, and you have my wholehearted support. I have always envied and admired people who can write music. But it seems to me that if po-mo composers really had stories to tell, they would be telling them instead of waiting for this so-called sophistication to kick in. Ultimately, whether in poetry or in music, cliches are just cliches, and the list keeps getting longer.

Lisa Hirsch said...

Responding, perhaps in random order.

To the last anonymous poster: Occam's razor is a useful thing. If people say that they like contemporary music, take it at face value. It's not a matter of belonging to a clique; it's a matter of taste.

As for tax-payers, I have no idea what you are talking about. In the United States, there's limited grant money available for the arts from the government. Sure, performing arts groups receive tax-deductible contributions. But I think you'd find that a vanishingly tiny percentage of charitable donations go to support new-music groups and commissions.

I join Bruce's puzzlement about elephants of any brow.

Lisa Hirsch said...

Oh, and - having attended a few concerts with Bruce in February, with music ranging from Bach to Carter, I just can't remember him rending the tonal scores and throwing the destroyed page at the stage while screaming that tonality should die. Oddly, he seemed to like all the music in that wide span of styles.

Maybe I'm just forgetful, though.

Lisa Hirsch said...

To the previous Anon, of course Josquin and Carter should be mentioned in the same sentence. Carter's metrical procedures are more like those of Renaissance composers who used mensural notation than they are like those of most composers since.

Lisa Hirsch said...

Regarding originality, I do not believe composers are looking to figure out what the "next big thing" is. I believe they're looking to develop their own individual voices, looking to make a living, looking to advance their art.

Lisa Hirsch said...

I also believe that we cannot know whether Western music has been developed to its farthest extent. Around 1900 or so, someone in the US Patent Office was very sure that invention had gone as far as it could go. Very likely some composers felt the same about Western classical music. They were all wrong.

My view of Cage would be closer to Joe's than to Mike's.

Lisa Hirsch said...

...and to continue on...

What Tom DePlonty so eloquently said.

And going way the hell back to the Anonymous poster discussing Ligeti. Gosh. Again, use Occam's razor, but be careful - it's sharp. Those audience numbers indicate a demand for performances of large-scale recent works.

People don't attend contemporary music concerts to look cultured. They can get that going to heard Brahms. They attend contemporary music concerts because...surprise...they like it.

By the way, do you know Le Grand Macabre? If not, you shouldn't imply by association that it's not interesting.

Lisa Hirsch said...

bgn - yes, exactly. Twentieth and twenty-first century music runs the gamut from harmonically conservative composers like Schmidt and Vaughn Williams and, hell, Havergal Brian to Britten and Shostakovich, both of whom are firmly in the standard rep, to Stravinsky, Bartok, Janacek to Glass, Reich, and Adams, to Carter, Xenakis, Fernyhough, to Lindberg, Salonen, and Saariaho (and Sallinen and Aho and Part and...) to Higdon, Harbison, Diamond, (Melinda) Wagner, and on and on.

Really, there's something for everyone. Any person interested in Western notational music who can't find something to like in the music of the last hundred years isn't trying very hard.

Lisa Hirsch said...

Paul, nice tour of changing manners of musical presentation!

Anonymous said...

Lisa,

"Any person interested in Western notational music who can't find something to like in the music of the last hundred years isn't trying very hard..."

***

I do actually.

I think Messiaen's 'Saint Francis of Assisi' is a very worthwhile opera.

Joe Barron said...

Around 1900 or so, someone in the US Patent Office was very sure that invention had gone as far as it could go. Very likely some composers felt the same about Western classical music. They were all wrong.

Some felt the techniques of music were exhausted in the 1760s, when the Baroque impetus was spent, and of course, music renewed itself in a big big way just a couple decades later. But the fact that something happened in the past is no guarantee it will happen in the future. We may have gone back to the well once too often. I hope I'm wrong, and that some genius will create a new, compelling and meaningful synthesis from the disjointed mannerisms floating around these days. Time will tell.