Tuesday, March 15, 2005
Boulez, et al, is dead...
I thought to title this one, "Messrs Babbitt, Carter, Boulez and all you academics, tear down this wall," but Galen beat me to it. Besides, "Boulez, et al, is dead" is a lot pithier than my first thought.
There's been a lot of discussion about walls, differences in compositional approach, meaning, context, etc. in new music. Fundamentally, as much as I hate to categorize things (it's so non-Taoist), I've always distinguished what many people think of as academic (read "uptown") music from non-academic (read "downtown"). Doesn't matter if you're in NYC or not (nowadays, I'm just outside Philadelphia myself). The distinction between Uptown and Downtown works in many cities, even Chicago.
Now, other fields besides music have the same conflict between "academic" and "community." I see it all the time in medicine, and I'm sure it exists in law and even business to some extent. In many ways such distinctions ARE silly, but also recognize that groups exist with different orientations, belief systems and goals. Boulez wrote an infamous polemic called Schoenberg is Dead, in which he sought to put forth such high-minded ideas as "...since the discoveries made by the Viennese, all composition other than twelve-tone is useless." At least he's honest about his feelings.
Having started out as a serial/dodecaphonic composer, I'm pretty familiar with the academic music world. At the same time, having given it up and set out on my own path, I'm very familiar with the "downtown" music community. I think that the tension between the two communities is good, since it serves both by creating interest in new music (both academic and not). It's also bad, since it sets up artificial boundaries. Many people assume that "downtown" music is inherently pleasant, while "uptown" is jarring and dodecaphonic. There are examples to both support and refute this notion. Interestingly, Feldman is claimed by both communities, yet I would never consider his music "academic" (to its credit).
Academia does need to change. It's too much of a fortress against contemporary music. Why is Pierrot Lunaire (very early 20th-century) still considered "modern?" By that token, Brahms should have been considered avant-garde when I was in elementary school. There needs to be cross-fertilization between uptown and downtown, including within the music schools. Not token efforts, as when a Philip Glass is invited in to speak, or when the NY Philharmonic performs a work by Steve Reich on a rare occasion. Rather, it needs to be consistent. Only then can the walls be broken down.
And that would be a good thing. No one is saying that "academia = bad" and "downtown = good." There's example of crap on both sides. I still love many serial works, including late Stravinsky, Schoenberg, Dallapiccola [a very neglected composer, BTW], etc. That does not preclude me from listening to Reich, LaMonte Young, Riley, Glass, Branca, etc. I think it's a much healthier musical situation when one partakes of music from many sources, including the "third world" and rock. I don't think it's bad that Nirvana's last ouevre, In Utero, grabs me as much as many "classical" works.
Nothing personal, of course, but I think the idea that Boulez, Carter, Babbitt, etc represent the best approach to music is no longer tenable. Wouldn't it be great if someone at a music school in the future can embrace real contemporary music and not have the music be derided? Wouldn't it be wonderful if the teachers listened to music for music's sake, rather than stop listening once it was no longer serial (as the famous story of Bernstein's Symphony #3 goes)?
I think uptown and downtown music would do better to listen to one another and appreciate the music for music's sake. Most importantly, we all need to stop erecting barriers.