Wednesday, June 04, 2014

One of these things is not like the other

Joshua Kosman quotes Richard Taruskin, in an outtake that didn't make his portrait of the musicologist:

"Think of all the composers who, during the Cold War, wrote serial music who otherwise wouldn't have. Sometimes they say so — in fact, it became a cliché for a while. 'I felt such a pressure to write serial music and I never even liked the stuff!' And on the other side, think of someone like Khrennikov. They know they have to write music that is tuneful and accessible and conveys the right message. These are social pressures, and we are more inclined now to recognize them as such."

Well, yeah, composers don't write their music in complete social isolation (at least those who want their music played and heard by others), and there can be local pressures to work in some directions and not in others.  But the composition and performance of music using serial or 12-tone or some other new or experimental technique happened, historically — and continues to happen —, in aspirational or affinitive communities, the result of personal choices, not state dictates. Moreover, there is scarcely evidence that these musics were anything other than highly localized in their impact, let alone hegemonous.

(Take a long breath and let's self-citate Renewable Music Anno 2007, now: "Tragic but true: when the smoke had cleared, the new music wars had been won not by towners up or down or coasters east or left, but by a rear guard of trained symphonic band composers from big state universities in the middle of the country. The surviving rebels were exiled, retrained, or forced into dayjobs in data processing and direct telephone sales.")

And while these communities had — and have — their pecking orders and points and rituals of prestige* and dismay, some drawn from well-reasoned and deeply felt aesthetics, others plain silly, there were always options to go elsewhere, either to other communities with alternative preferences and practices or to use the best properties of the liberal market to make an end run around existing alliances and enterprises and venture production on your own terms, and not necessarily to compete in zero-sum terms, but simply to open up niches within which one might work productively and publicly. I'm not naive here: this option was not easy, was rarely successful when tried, thus so much more remarkable when it worked but this option was simply not possible in a functioning Khrenikovian system and the comparison is odious.

* One footnote about the issue of prestige.  Something that gets fundamentally misunderstood within the mainstream is the fact that it is the complex and experimental music which fills up the scholarly and critical apparatus which surrounds historical music-making.  (And yes, an article in PNM or JMT or JCM or Leonardo had a certain cache in part of musical academe, while Source and Sounding carried their own cache elsewhere (And no, those caches seldom found intersection.).)  But this always was — from the Ars Nova on — and still is the case, because this is the music that engages music history in a novel, thoughtful, and lively way. This is the music-making that offers something to think and talk and write about.  Quietism, in music as in literature is largely absent (quiet, silent) from historical and critical accounts, because whatever real and immediate pleasures it may offer, however accomplished it may be in its recombinatorial play with the familiar,  it adds nothing new to the larger conversation. 


Lisa Hirsch said...

Right on. I have directed JK to this posting.

stephen soderberg said...

Beautiful, Dan!

Steve Hicken said...

Very well said.