Saturday, January 28, 2012

Are we even having a conversation?

I just listened to a 1957 radio discussion with Pierre Boulez and four Bay Area composers, Robert Erickson, Arnold Elston, Andrew Imbrie, and Jack Holloway from John Whiting's My KPFA website. The themes of the discussion run precisely into issues of continuity and coherence which were controversial then and continue to make music (and thinking about music) lively. Once again, Robert Erickson's down-to-earth but very smart way of talking about music was most impressive, the former Webern student Elston appeared most sympathetic to Boulez while Imbrie just wasn't buying it. Given the early date, the fact that a room full of musicians was straying into philosophical territories somewhat outside their professional comfort zones, some insecure moments (i.e. when Boulez couldn't recall Heidegger's name) and a presumed orientation towards a general listening public, I'm struck by the thought that a conversation like this, which once took place on an American free-to-air broadcast, probably couldn't happen today. At KPFA or another Pacifica station, certainly, where some social/political achievements of the new left — the (in itself, necessary) opening to a diversity of minority interests — led, in the zero sum game of sharing airtime available in a radio programming day, to shutting out a great deal of the programming, particularly any musics weighed down by any degree of connection to the classical tradition, even the most institutionally fragile of these musics, the new and experimental.* (Baby thrown out with the bathtub, you know?) In principle, the resources of the Internet ought to have restored some balance to this and, to a certain extent they have. I am, for instance, able to listen to this old broadcast anytime I want, and the offerings in online recordings, interviews, podcasts, articles, composers' or performers' or critics' webpages etc. are rich in real content. But are we really having serious public conversations (and productive disagreements) anymore about complex or subtle matters, connecting to the larger cultural and intellectual life, or are we, vulnerable to some extent due to our marginality, focused rather more on the pursuit of accessibility?**

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* The Pacifica stations were VERY important for the reception of other "classical" musics neglected by the commercial classical stations, being pioneers, for example, in broadcasting early music or in composers once considered outside the canon. William Malloch, for example, of KPFA (and whose weekly analytical broadcasts were a more vital lesson in 19th and early 20th century music history than any I actually received in University), had a very important role in the Mahler renaissance. And then there are some real commissioning activities of the stations: from Cage's WBAI to Lou Harrison's Homage to Pacifica. What radio station in the US today is commissioning new pieces?

**You know what I'd really like to hear online? How about a conversation about modernity and music between Alex Ross and Charles Shere, two of our most important writers about music and two who have certainly though hard about that topic and taken home very different (if equally provisional) conclusions. And there is a huge number of composers in some wild pairings I'd like to hear converse uncensored and unplanned about technique, aesthetics, da bidniss of music, art, movies, politics, musical politics, cooking...



1 comment:

mrG said...

"pursuit of accessibility" is but a haughty euphenism for "putting bums in seats", and putting paying bums in if at all possible, otherwise using the numbers to lobby bum-patrons to sponsor them. This is, imho, where we went wrong: we no longer write as Beethoven did, the music that was a logical outgrowth of our previous work or even the music we feel will enrich our audiences in a grand humanist sense. Today we are seeking to compete with LOLCats, and very little else, indeed, many I talk to are too jaded to believe there could even be anything more to the process than YouTube seat-bums.