Sunday, March 01, 2009

Misfired Canons

An initiative for the promotion of new music based in Cologne, ON, has released a "key works list of new music."  The organizers have not been shy of the word "canon" and the list is presented as "Cologne's Guide to New Music."  The whole thing is here.  The hat tip goes to MusikTexte, the current issue of which has a fascinating review of the list and the process of arriving at it.  Gisela Gronemeyer, MusikTexte editor notes that the creation of the list was dependent upon voluntary nominations, reflects the institutional biases of the jury, includes nothing by composers outside Europe and the US  (interestingly enough, the US-Americans included are overwhelmingly experimentalists, not the major institutional figures) and, shockingly, includes no women.

Now, making lists can be useful in examining one's experiences and biases, or at the very least, fun, in the fashion of a parlor game or meme.  (I hope that my own on-going and entirely personal series of "landmarks" is understood in this way; it's not a "best of" list, but a list of works intimately tied to my own musical biography, works that changed the way in which I listen.)   List-making, in an attempt to describe a canon is, however, an inherently troublesome business, bound to reflect, on the one hand, the inevitable biases of the canon-makers's own personal experiences or professional interests, and equally bound to create complaints — many of them completely justified — at exclusions or over-emphases.  While most lists of the kind are harmless, a serious problem can ensue when a list aquires some official status, and with it, power to affect programming or commissions or other assignments of favor or material goods.  Were ON's list only an historical record of the preferences and predelictions of a single community of musicians at one point in time, it would be useful and unobjectionable as historical or ethnographic data.  But the attachment of ON's list to a program for the promotion of new music with more than personal or local ambitions is highly problematic. 



Paul H. Muller said...

Could you repost the link to the list? I would be interested in reading it.

Daniel Wolf said...

Duly reposted.

Anonymous said...

Dear Daan,

it strikes me that what you wrote here is somewhat - banal. Talking about bias: why don´t you better write which of the pieces would you like to see REMOVED from that list? That would make more interesting reading (we who read your blog regurarly already have some idea about what you would maybe PUT on the list, so I´d be interested in the negative side of the thing now...).

Daniel Wolf said...

Okay Anon, I'll bite: I'd remove the Penderecki St Lukas Passion, the Britten War Requiem, all of the Shostakovich, all of the B.A. Zimmermann, all of the Furrer, and the Durufle, and I'd replace the two Kodaly choral works with the Bartok Cantata Profana. I'm not altogether certain, as much as I love the piece, that The Unanswered Question should be the only Ives on the list (I'd prefer the Fourth symphony or the Second Orchestral Set, if there has to be only one). Maybe I'd replace the Debussy Prelude with Jeux, if I can't have both.

I think that the list loses considerable focus by not making a decision about what is "new music" and what is not. Jeux and Salome and La Valse certainly are, if each in a very different way, as far as I'm concerned, as is the Sibelius Fourth and Tapiola, in still another way, but Durufle or Britten? I don't think so.

But again, my problem is not with the contents of the list, but what is being or will be done with it by people with access to some serious funding.