Felsenmusick - The Weblog of Daniel Felsenfeld
The Web Log of a Certain Daniel Felsenfeld: Composer, critic, avid reader, aspiring
bon vivant, capricorn, shadowy figure, advice for the lovelorn

Monday, November 28, 2005

Welcome to Decades Hence

A startling article in the Wall Street Journal (discovered by way of Arts Journal) by one Jacob Hale Russell reads that some composers reject the academic ideas put forth in the 1950s, and that there's been, a craze that's sweeping the nation "...from Sioux Falls to Philadelphia," mirabile dictu, a return to "prettiness" rather than the mid-century serial strictness. This might have been something worth noting were this, say, 1952, but articles like this are part of the reason we live in a small, fragile soap bubble. In a composer's mind--especially, as this article cloyingly states, a composer "...reared on Phish and Jimi Hendrix"--of course we all wrestle with complexity vs. non-complexity, but when we do this, we wrestle not with current ideological demands but with the past. So Daniel Kellogg has written a piece that rejects "complexity for its own sake" and this reporter (not through any fault of the mentioned composer) chooses not to tell us anything about the piece other than the stance it takes and reveal a few cloying details? Would Kellogg want his 21 minute orchestral commemoration to be remembered as simply not being of a certain school of thought? Is this even news? Certainly not due to the fact that the WSJ Article mentions discs by John Corigliano, Joan Tower, Steve Reich, John Adams and George Rochberg, none of whom are part of this fantastic revolutionary "rediscovery." The title of the link on ArtsJournal, "The New Classical" poses the question: Is this really new? Would be news to many of the most successful composers in America who have been at it for years, from Ned Rorem to Philip Glass to Gian-Carlo Menotti to David Del Tredici to infinity...

Kellog wants to write music that "..he wants to hear," framed also as novel by the WSJ. This presumes something totally egregious: that adherents to the serial procedures did not want to hear the music they themselves produced. I am not Charles Wuorinen or Elliot Carter, so I cannot speak for them, but I would be willing to wager that the music they write, like it or not (subscribe to the concert series or not), was and is the music they wanted to hear, music that tickled their ears and thrilled their minds. I've no doubt about it: nobody, like their work or not, sits down to write a bad or unlovable piece of music.

I do not come down on either side of this argument because frankly I think it is an old and dead struggle. These are no longer the sides any more than the Yankees and the Confederates. We hear daily of the "problems" in classical music, and if we are ever to take a step to solving them we have to address the issues of our own time (even if we do not like our own time) rather than a more simplistic contrempts of a vanished world. The implication--that serial music and its descendants rules the roost while there is a new generation trying to upturn it by returning to the old ways--is a quaint and lovely notion that might have been riveting half a century ago but in 2005 it is laughably far from true...though I, like Mr. Russell, wish these were the only problems we faced. Our world would be a better place were this true.

It is arguments like these, posed in this specious fashion, that aids and abets the far-too-often-vaunted "death of classical music," rather than anything Mr. Babbitt--one of the usual straw men hung out to dry in these insubstantial posings--did, especially in his always misquoted (or rather, not quoted at all, save for the title, not his doing) article written in the throes of a different era. And bravo to the Journal for finally noticing, and including those revelatory details about the shrinking audience and the median age.

Before judging, everyone should read Babbitt's article. I am no rabid fan, but feel it does not say what people presume it says. Based on the title, the article is a screed in defense of incomprehensible and offensive ugliness, an excoriation of subscription audiences who ran screaming; based on its content, it simply explains how some composers who might or might not be ahead of their time can get pretty lonely. At least read the first line, this explains it all.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thank you very much for those wise words.


12:26 PM  
Blogger Hucbald said...

I still have the same problems with Babbit and his ilk that I had before re-reading the article. His contention that serialism is "more effecient" than tonal language is stated as an obvious fact without anything whatsoever to back it up. For good reason: The notion is falacious on it's face. As are many other arguements he makes, such as listeners being unqualified to judge "serious" music: If the vast majority of people reject your music, Milton, perhaps you should hang a sign under every mirror in your home that reads, "You're looking at the problem."

3:01 AM  
Anonymous Eric Bruskin said...

I heard "Ben", and I believe the only thing it will be remembered for is its pre-premiere publicity. It's a forgetful mishmash of a reasonable young talent (Kellogg's piece played by eighth blackbird) dilated beyond its abilities, and further weighed down by a gimmicky premise.

11:22 AM  

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