Thursday, December 01, 2005


There seems to be an awful lot of worry out there about the place of serious music in the world, it's getting a lot of bloggish chatter, and some of that is coming from people -- unlike myself -- who really know how to write about music.

I can't agree more with these words from New Yorker critic Alex Ross:
classical music, for all its elite trappings, is actually a radical, disruptive force in American culture, whereas most popular culture, for all its rebellious trappings, is intensely conservative.
A few minutes after reading Ross, I came across an article by composer Cary Boyce at the Sequenza 21 Composers Forum full of reasonable marketing advice to composers, summed up perhaps best by his command: Package yourself well.

At first, Boyce's advice went into my head without registering any serious objections. Some of it I have said myself (e.g. why do so many composers begin their web pages or bios with lists of academic degrees and prizes instead of saying anything about their music?). However, the suspicion began nagging me this morning and has continued to nag at me for the rest of the day that this is probably just about the worst way to think about and care for our music. I believe that treating serious composers as brand names and pieces of serious music as market commodities both economically senseless and musically insensitive.

I believe that in the US a seriously wrong idea about how one goes about making serious music popular has been widespread -- call it the-Leonard-Bernstein-explains-it-all-to-the-kids-model -- although that idea depended largely on a large local audience still close to a recent European emmigrant experience. With that experience edging evermore into the past, Americans are at an interesting juncture now with regard to their European cultural inheritance. It's more of an elective affinity rather than a birthright. Perhaps that's one reason why performers coming out of places like CalArts or Mills are often more exciting interpreters than the cookie-cutter virtuosi turned out by the big conservatories. (Don't get me started on the suitability of the name "conservatory"!)

Ultimately, all I'm interested in are great pieces of music, and I'd like to encounter that music on its own terms. I'll confess to being interested in composers' biographies, but that's from a general interest in intellectual or creative biography, or maybe even vicarious living on my part, but not from any sense that the biography will reliably explain the work.* And even though a composer's worklist gets handled as a kind of track record for commissions and the like, I'm bound to be disappointed if the worklist is the only reason for recommending a new work. I'm more interested in repertoires than in catalogues of individual composers, and more interested in particular pieces than in repertoires, and maybe more interested in my favorite places in pieces than in whole pieces. (There is a series of tutti chords in the first movement of Harold in Italy that are dynamite; too bad you have to sit through the rest of Harold in Italy to hear them).

These are very rough ideas and I've said nothing concretely prescriptive. I've put Marcel Mauss's Essay on the Gift and Hermann Broch's Hugo von Hofmannsthal and his Time on my desk, perhaps they'll bring some clarity to the topic.

* Okay, I'll grant you that knowing that Berlioz had an overwhelming infatuation and then disappointing marriage might help with the Symphonie Fantastique, or knowing that Nancarrow liked good coffee is one way of getting into some of the Studies. But that kind of information is (a) more impressionistic than concrete, (b) may be misleading, possibly getting in the way of your own images, and (c) you can probably get a good handle on the music without any of it, anyway.

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