Saturday, February 27, 2010

It's important, so we demand improvement

Pliable gets it exactly right:

A critic writing a savage review of a concert is considered to be doing his job, not being anti-classical music. But a commentator writing critically of the BBC's output is considered to be an anti-BBC heretic. Which suggests parallels between the BBC and the established Church. Both have been flattered for decades by unquestioning believers. Both are now in terminal decline. And the loss of both will be a great tragedy.

Unfortunately, it appears that this is far too subtle for the management of many of our institutions: criticism, when expressed because one finds the work or the institution so important that one wants it to be done better, simply gets heard (and used) as a vote against all such work or institutions of the sort.   This problem is far from confined to the U.K.. New music programming in German radio stations faces exactly the same problem, exacerbated by ratings competition from private broadcasters and the budget pressure put on by the extortion-in-the-guise-of-the-holy-cow-called-professional-soccer.  And let's not even get started on the US where new music has never been a presence in NPR affilliates and where slicing the schedule up to cover social or political interest groups has led Pacifica to all-but remove new music from its schedules.  So we're stuck in the awkward position of having to praise whatever does get programmed — even when it's mediocre or just plain crap — out of fear that anything other than praise will be taken as grounds for eliminating new music coverage altogether.  And — misfortune on top of unfortune — this tends to have the side effect of validating the mediocre programming instead of improving it, which just contributes to the downward spiral.   



Sxip Shirey said...

So in a such a weak economy of New Music in the U.S., who decides what is "crap"? The person who programs it apparently doesn't decide it's "crap". Do you decide? Is there an academic consensus? Is certain New Music considered the "bubble gum pop" of New Music, or not experimental enough or what? Yeah, it's hard to critique it here because it essentially doesn't exist except for a very small audience and a bunch academics, which is fine, there isn't much of a market for many things and small communities make the best of that. But I'm really curious, who decides what is "crap" in an art economy of essentially NO economy?

Anonymous said...

Well, if a composer has made a conscious decision to write contemporary, experimental academic music (or sincerely can’t write in another way), she assumes the risk of a major communication gap between her music and the mainstream audience.

It’s neither good, nor bad. Maybe her music is here to stay, maybe not. Time, an excellent quality filter, will tell. Scarlatti used to be a star in his day, not anymore.

Perhaps, hoping the BBC will promote the music is asking for too much, although I may be wrong. You can’t go against the flow, and try to impose music on people.

These days, it is very easy to establish an online radio station (essentially streaming audio, put in autopilot mode). Building an audience is a different story. The average listener’s ear either “gets” it, or it doesn’t.

For me, an average listener, even Mahler sounds way too heavy these days. For example, the opening section of the sixth symphony is stunning, but then, two minutes later, he loses me - the music starts to drift away, loses momentum and begins to sound like the score from “Gone with the Wind”.

Mahler is a huge figure, conductors love him, the music is supposed to be the culmination of their art. But there is a question of whether his music works for the average, non-professional XXI century listener.

Not so with Bach, who is truly universal. That’s why Bach is a genius, and Mahler is “merely” a large figure, someone who can be located in a specific historical and stylistic context.

Bach’s invention 13, played in MIDI format, sounds better than Gustav Leonhardt on his best day.

Of course, in our days, Bach, with all his counterpoint, would have to do something outrageous, extra-musical, to promote himself in the media, like spill a bucket of paint over Vladimir Putin or Beyonce.


Daniel Wolf said...


Of course, every listener will have their own judgements about the value and quality of repertoire, but they can only judge the repertoire to which they are exposed, and as long as particular institutions feel that their habitual programming is validate, they have no incentitive to offer a greater diversity. You can see this in the way that Marin alsop, for example, uses the Cabrillo Festival to play repertoire that she uses in her in-season gigs, rather than exploring the tradition at Cabrillo of west coast experimentalism. This leads to an awful feedback loop in which west coasters get no experience in orchestral writing leaving Cabrillo with the new excuse against programming locals that west coast are insufficiently experienced in orchestral writing!

Above and beyond differences in opinion about repertoire, I believe that there can be general agreement that when a major festival or ensemble perpetually gives too little rehearsal time to new music, the result is crap. But according to the rules of the game now, you can't call them on the faulty performances because it will be understood as critiquing the fact that they're even condescending to play anything. So it's either praise the crumbs you get, or fear that there will soon be no crumbs at all.


You wrote: "Well, if a composer has made a conscious decision to write contemporary, experimental academic music (or sincerely can’t write in another way), she assumes the risk of a major communication gap between her music and the mainstream audience."

This misses the entire history of experimental music of the late 20th century, which was both a reaction to contemporary music which had lost its audience and optimism that the ways in which audience and musicians relate are not yet settled. Yes, experimentation carries the risk of failing to connect to an audience, but it is also the only means available to find new connections to audiences.

Anonymous said...

Daniel, I agree with your criticism, I know very little about late 20th century music.

Some of the stuff I hear from younger composers here in Russia - mostly random samples - often has a generic, faceless sound. You couldn't tell one from the other.

But there are interesting individual pieces.

Maybe someone should do a CD along the lines of "The best of . . ." for the period you mention, with a thorough selection of the best, representatives works by the most interesting composers of the time.

Also, the XX century, a huge experiment in itself, is now over and this may be a good time to reassess the whole panorama.

The XXI listener will certainly not need all of Stravinsky, all of Hindemith or all of Luciano Berio.


Anonymous said...


Mahler is my favorite composer, and for many of us, it is the greatest musician who ever lived.

No offense, but if you don’t get Mahler, I wouldn’t write about it, it makes you look bad.

Imagine an online radio station that only played Bach. True, you would save on royalties, but you wouldn’t have a stable audience base, the project would probably fail.

Now imagine one that played, among others, Bach, Mahler, Andre Previn, Rokia Traore and Shostakovich.

You’ve lost stylistic focus, it’s become eclectic, maybe even eccentric, but you’ve tried to expand your audience base.

Leonid, a word of advice: you can’t rely on your intuition to make judgments about music, leave it to professionals.

These issues are studied by serious scholars.