Friday, July 22, 2011

The Quietists, Keeping Quiet

James Primrosch Primosch has a review of the 3rd edition of Paul Griffith's Modern Music and After, in whch he complains that a whole laundry list of American composers [Harbison, Corigliano, Martino, Shapey, Davidovsky, Zwilich, Tower, Reynolds, Johnston, Kernis, Rouse, Lieberson, Melinda Wagner, Powell, Schwantner, del Tredici, Currier, Mackey, Hartke, Wernick] are not included as well as details some additional slights, among them to Wuorinen and Crumb. (I don't know the 3rd edition, but I have the 1st edition with the slightly different title right at hand, and it not only includes Wuorinen as a composer, but includes a bit of score sample.)

On principle, I don't think that laundry lists of the un-included are a particularly useful way to critique monographic musical histories; the historian is responsible for fashioning a narrative and the more productive question is whether the composers included support and enhance that narrative or the composers excluded detract from or would serve as critical counter-examples to that narrative. My own narrative for the same post-war period might well include Poulenc, for example, excluded by Griffiths, but it's perfectly clear why Poulenc's conservativism does not fit into Griffith's post-war narrative, which concentrates on more innovative repertoire. (I believe that Poulenc is treated within Griffith's A concise history of avant-garde music: from Debussy to Boulez, a book with an obviously longer timeline.)

In this case, however, I'm prepared to support Griffiths with regard to Primrosch's list, excepting the names of Reynolds and Johnston, two figures who have been pushing some real boundaries of music-making, because his list is otherwise one of establishment East Coast composers — many of them abundantly talented — who simply do not challenge the extent and limits of the musical as given to us by tradition and institutions. Yes, these are composers who do well within contemporary musical-institutional life, their works may even be short-lived local repertoire pieces, but their works do not make, or even bother to make, musical history. And yes, I do believe that their "not bothering" is not only the usual symptom of a conservative musical mentality but a tactical move, not to dirty the nests of the schools and foundations and orchestras and opera houses within which they operate and apparently thrive. To borrow a term from Poe and Ron Silliman, these are musical quietists.

I am certain that there are partisans of these composers who disagree with me fundamentally, but they are simply not making the case. In part, they don't because their institution position is comfortable enough that they have no urgency to make the case* but also, I believe, they don't make the case because it is difficult if not impossible to do so on musical-historical terms. But I'd be happy to be proven wrong! I really prefer to have multiple narratives, because music is rich enough to sustain that diversity. Where is the quietist who disagrees with Griffith's narrative (or mine) AND is willing to make the public case for their own?


* That comfort level has been endangered a few times, for example when Paul Fromm realized how little of the music he had supported financially actually found a place in a living repertoire.


Charles Shere said...

The problem you've been working with is the Problem of Repertoire.

Daniel Wolf said...

Charles, I think that I agree entirely. Without a common practice and common occasions for music-making (i.e Mass or the Soiree) we're left with inventing the wheel with each piece, each performance, which is taxing, to say the least. (The extreme case, I suppose is Stockhausen before the operas, really trying to make radical new starts with each piece; more practical would be Cage in the Song Books or Steve Reich in the early part of his career, in which succesive pieces represented consequential steps in a mode of working.) There are radical composers, however, who seem to me to have found successful ways of reconciling with repertoire: Jo Kondo and Feldman are the examples that first come to my mind.