Hmm . . . The Kennedy Center Honors. Always forget about these things until December. Always find them exasperating and inspiring at the same time. Be nice to get one someday . . . Ah – there’s Zubin Mehta. Bet most viewers haven’t even heard of him; geez, I hope the awards continue to pay tribute to classical musicians in the future . . . Ug, couldn’t they have come up with something other than Fritz Kreisler for the tribute? Sigh. Suppose beggars can’t be choosers . . . Wouldn’t it be nice if the Kennedy Center honored Steve Reich or Elliott Carter or John Adams someday? Instead we get . . . Andrew Lloyd Webber. How many crescendos and cymbal crashes can one man pack into two minutes? Eee gads! Question: How does one explain to his fans that his music SUCKS???? “Well, but look how much money he makes!” Be nice to have that much money someday. But writing trash is no guarantee of financial success; gotta satisfy first the artist within. Ah – there’s Dolly Parton. Now these songs are nice. Unpretentious, heartfelt, lovely. (Wonder if Lloyd Webber’s listening . . . ) And the country folks are doing a nice job: Allison Krauss, Vince Gill, Kenny Rogers and so forth. And finally Steven Spielberg. Wonder if he remembers the nice little note he wrote for me years ago: “To David: Hope to hear your music on one of our films.” Be nice if he did.

37 Responses to “Kennedy Center Honors Free-Association”
  1. Alex Ross says:

    Yes, Dolly is the only real artist in that sorry group.

  2. david toub says:

    My, we’re awfully bitter for the holidays, aren’t we, david? 8-)

    Seriously, your stream of consciousness is dead on. Good for Zubi, but why not La Monte Young? I do suspect that someday Adams will be honored, but not Reich or Glass, which is ludicrous. Then again, try to console yourself with a great quote from Ives: “Prizes are the badges of mediocrity.” Yeah, it sounds like sour grapes, but he was correct. And should awards matter, anyway? Sure, they’re nice to have, and I’m sure the money and recognition/prestige helps, but in the end, the best award is when someone actually listens to your music and likes it. At least that’s the nonsense I console myself with 8-)

  3. Alex Ross says:

    You need some basic level of celebrity name recognition to receive this award. Glass could possibly get it, though he’s more mocked than loved by the populace. Adams and Reich: not a chance.

  4. Eric Lin says:

    I think the quality of the Kennedy Center Honors has indeed gone down hill a long time ago. There used to be a time when they were…umm…real artists?

  5. andrea says:

    i always liked lisa simpson’s dream where she’s getting the honor along with ornette coleman…

  6. david toub says:

    Alex, it’s pure speculation, but I wouldn’t be surprised if within the decade, Adams is considered the next great American composer, kinda like Copland was. He’s done the Pulitzer thing, and if he’s better known for the more popular (read: sell-out) stuff like Short Ride in a Fast Machine and the Violin Concerto rather than his more interesting stuff from the early 80’s, and if people forget the (unjust) controversy over his Klinghoffer opera, then he might make it. Who knows?

    Let’s not dis Zubin Mehta—he at least did give the orchestral premiere of Tehillim in the 80’s, which I attended. Crappy performance, but it was one of the first times any minimalist piece was actually performed uptown (the others I know of being Einstein at the Met, which was not an “official” production, and the Boston Symphony doing Four Organs. I suspect there might have been others, but not that many).

  7. Alex Ross says:

    As highly as I and many others estimate Adams, he has an almost total lack of name recognition outside of classical music. Reich has a somewhat wider cachet among smart pop listeners, but those certainly aren’t the people involved with the Kennedy Center Honors. Glass is the only American composer who can be considered “famous.”

  8. Steve Layton says:

    I still think that despite Glass’ & Reich’s slight name-recognition outside Mainstream Classical, Adams is still the closest contender for the “top American composer” in the sense of anything comparable to Copland (Carter gets a nod from some “in-the-know”, but more from elder-respect than musical awareness). And yet it’s still not really comparable to Copland; none of these names has a “Fanfare for the Common Man” or “Rodeo”– that few minutes of music out of all their hard work, that leaks out into the much wider public currency.

  9. “Question: How does one explain to his fans that his music SUCKS????”

    I have to respectfully disagree with David on this. His music is not to your taste, fine, and it lacks to a large extend the harmonic sophistication and avant-garde-itude of composers like Sondheim, true. And I find much of it unappealing and prefer Sondheim myself. But those are all different from claiming that his work is objectively bad (I assume that’s what you’re asserting, since otherwise your complaint would have been “why don’t they pick people I like.”)

    Forget for the moment the fundamental philosophical problems with making objective claims about the goodness of art, and let’s assume for the sake of the argument that such judgements are sound. (They’re not, but I don’t want to have that argument right now.) Here are some arguments in favor of Webber as a skilled composer:

    1. Melody. He is a master at crafting evocative, tuneful melodies that are memorable, effective, and actually theoretically interesting in some ways. Take a look at some of his best-known melodies and notice how he does things like Schenkerian-style ascending and descending high-points, and how he breaks up the line to make solo lines internally contrapuntal. Sure, he surrounds it with orchestral shmaltz, but so what? No, the harmonic language behind the melodies isn’t generally fancy, but plenty of great music has simple harmonic language.

    2. Meter. Webber is as good as anybody in the business at writing in odd meters (5 and 7, especially) and making them feel organic, and making them palatable to a relatively unsophisticated audience. Take the title song from Sunset Boulevard, which is in a fast 5/8 — it doesn’t feel wierd or off, it just feels fast and anxious, which is entirely appropriate. And this is the _title song_ in 5/8, but he has enough skill that he gets away with it. (And for my money Sunset Boulevard is actually a great show.)

    3. Influence. One of the points of the Kennedy Center awards is to recognize people whose “abundant contributions to their fields are remarkable.” I’m not up enough on musical theatre history to be confident of these assertions, but it seems to me that Webber was an important pioneer of the through-composed/through-sung musical, and of the rock-opera style musical. It’s also my impression that he was an important force in reviving musical theatre composed in a more “classical” style after a long perdiod of predominantly jazz-based musicals. (Think especially of Phantom. And while we’re on the subject of Phantom, recall the structural sophistication of the song “Notes,” and how it relates to Gilbert and Sullivan. Also note Webber’s use of Leitmotif.)

    So anyway, while I wouldn’t call myself a big Andrew Lloyd Webber fan, I think he gets an unfair rap from the “serious” musical theatre crowd and from the classical world.

  10. Alex Ross says:

    Steve and David, I’m simply resistant (as I suspect you are) to anyone being labeled “top composer.” To engage in such a discussion ends up diminishing the field; contemporary music is too big a world for anyone to be considered the village mayor of it. In the same way, I can’t stand it when people start arguing whether Stravinsky or Strauss or whoever was the “greatest twentieth-century composer.” (In the spirit of sabotage, I once said that it was Richard Strauss.) Would anyone think of discussing who was the greatest eighteenth- or nineteenth-century composer? When people on the outside ask these questions, the subtext often is, “Who’s the one person I should pay attention to, so I can ignore the rest?” On the other hand, we do certainly need composers who have the mysterious ability to serve as cultural spokespeople, symbols of an age, and, yes, Adams is close to being the one. He certainly provides a good place for the novice to start — and at the same time his best works grow ever more interesting with time. (Compare the initial reviews of “Nixon,” almost entirely dismissive, with the way the piece is discussed now.) But I wonder whether our age is simply too variegated for anyone to presume to encapsulate it, as Copland seemed to do in the period from 1935 to 1945. For some, Adams may be the man; for others, it may be Carter or Oliveros or Zorn. It’s a great moment of chaos we’re in. To each her own.

  11. Alex Ross says:

    Oops — meant to write Stravinsky or Schoenberg. So much for that joke.

  12. Much as I hate to chime in about who should be anointed with top honors (when will we all get over the need to deify a few individuals and celebrate the fact that there is so much great music out there being made by tons of people?), I would argue that John Adams might not be as obscure outside the classical music community as Alex has been contending here. He got on CNN at least twice–for Nixon and for Klinghoffer–which to the best of my knowledge is twice more than Reich has been featured on that network. (Bravo to CNN for featuring Adams; boo to CNN for not featuring Reich as well!)

    Indeed, those two operas (neither of which has yet to be mounted at the Met) and the 9/11 NY Philharmonic piece which won the Pulitzer are all-too-rare instances of contemporary concert music interfacing with mainstream American culture. There needs to be much more of this sort of thing if we ever hope for “contemporary music” to get paid attention to outside our own small coterie.

    But I agree with David: they should give the honor to La Monte. I’d drop whatever I happened to be doing to hop on the next bus to D.C. just to watch the handshakes with all the officials…

    FJO

  13. david toub says:

    But I agree with David: they should give the honor to La Monte. I’d drop whatever I happened to be doing to hop on the next bus to D.C. just to watch the handshakes with all the officials…

    heh heh heh heh…yes, that would be a very interesting (and welcome) sight indeed.

    I wholeheartedly agree that there has been too much fascination for a long time with the notion of anointing a “great American composer.” While Copland seemed to fit the bill for years, and as much as I love his music, the entire concept seemed to exclude so many others who were writing extremely important and wonderful music (any of us could name the names, like Ives, Partch, Harrison, Cage, etc). Adams no longer comes off as new music, and that’s going to be much more acceptable than the stuff Reich and Glass have written, even of late. Besides, I don’t know that it’s so important to be famous to get tapped for the Kennedy Center honor (although it doesn’t hurt). And Adams is indeed well known enough to squeak in. But as I said, this is based on no data whatsoever.

  14. Alex Ross says:

    This is indeed a data-free argument, but I don’t think a couple of appearances on CNN create anything like the name recognition that Glass obtained through Koyaanisqatsi, etc. People may have the vague impression that somewhere in the land is a composer who wrote operas about Nixon and Klinghoffer, but the name Adams would not in itself ring a bell. I have a good anecdotal sense of this because I often have conversations with people outside the classical-music world who ask me what I’m writing about. Adams, alas, is not a name to conjure with. Glass they recognize, although they often crinkle their faces in annoyance.

  15. Alex Ross says:

    By the way, give props to the PBS NewsHour for doing a nice little feature on Steve Reich a few weeks ago. It ran almost the same night as 60 Minutes’ repeat of its Jay Greenberg segment, an instructive comparison. Oh no, here we go again….

  16. I agree that Philip Glass is likely the living classical composer with the most name recognition, and I’d point out that his appearance on South Park is probably considerably more important than Adams’s appearances on CNN. For most of America, Philip Glass is essentially synonomous with Minimalism, even among people who have never knowingly heard his work. This is perhaps especially true among people who think Minimalism is bad — I suspect that most of the people who would talk scornfully about “music that does the same thing over and over” would cite Glass as the case-in-point (or may not even realize that he’s part of a whole genre). Note also that Glass is the guy who gets tapped to score all of the artsy/literary movies — The Truman Show, The Hours, Kundun, etc. So certainly more people have heard his music than any of the other contenders for “most famous composer” even if people don’t know what they’re hearing.

    And poor Phil gets it from both sides — he’s undeservedly probably the most scorned by classical music insiders (especially composers) of all living composers, and certainly the least respected minimalist. He gets painted as a sort of McDonalds of contemporary music.

    One closing point — the most famous living classical composer in America is actually John Williams. I realize that I’m not allowed to say that, but it’s true. This business of segregating “movie music” and “concert music” is absurd.

  17. it’s the top of the pops!
    yawn
    such mediocrity..they should let someone who understands the field be make these decisions. you could call that “elitism” i suppose, but then again you could also call it an “educated” decision. i have no qualms about that. otherwise like someone said above, it’s just a contest of name recognition. how about naming someone that we can get interested in and go and check out for ourselves?
    wasn’t john adams one (or two!) of our presidents? (out of all of them, i find j.l.a. the most interesting.)

  18. i should backtrack and say i’m not that up on mehta’s conducting – might be a worthy choice.

  19. David Salvage says:

    I’ve seen three Webber shows: Sunset, Phantom, and Cats. Cats I was very young. Sunset, whatever Webber’s structural sophistication, never seemed to me to get off the ground. It was just ruminative Andante throughout. Phantom — I will admit some of the text setting is deft. But I think Webber’s melodies are memorable mostly because he repeats them so dang much. And the crash and bang behind them is too big for the two-three minute shoes the music fills. That’s what is so nice about Dolly’s songs: she just lets a melody speak for itself rather than (re)launching into it ad nauseam with 1,000 violins. Webber’s selling; Dolly’s singing.

  20. Steve Layton says:

    Alex, I used “top” American composer only in the same sense as a Copland in the 40s-50s. And I was careful to use it with no connotation to “greatest” at all. Purely speculating on nothing more than who could possibly make the Kennedy Center list at some future date, Adams seems much more likely than Reich, and at least marginally more likely than Glass (though this all depends on how many years down the road we’re talking about, and how much & what type of turnover the group doing the selecting has).

    Of course Galen does mention John Williams as “most famous”, and for better or worse he’s right. Didn’t he already get the Kennedy gig a couple years ago?

    And yeah, Rama, it is a “top of the pops” yawn-fest. I’d never even consider mentioning somebody like La Monte Young here; they may be happening at the same moment and same country, but the Kennedy Center Honors and Young don’t really exist in the same culture.

  21. My great great great great grandfather, John Quincy Adams was 6th president of the U.S. and was also the only president to go back to congress after his term. (Also first abolitionist president/Amistad etc). Weird coincidence, my sister married a gentleman from Sierra Leone! (And speaking of John Williams, the composer of Steven Spielberg’s score of the movie about my oldoldoldoldold man). :)

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_Quincy_Adams

    Anyways, back to the souring grapes…

  22. Alex Ross says:

    That’s awesome, Jeff. We’ve finally found the real John Adams. Or are you engaging in some extremely dry humor? Point taken about John Williams. I was going to put his name into one of these posts, but Gordon Fitzell’s fabulous piece “violence” on the new 8th blackbird record distracted me. Actually, that’s a lie, I just wanted to register my enjoyment of it.

  23. No, it’s a fact. We’re from Abigail’s side of the family, which is why I’m not related to our 2nd president. A very rich friend of mine from college’s mother once asked me, ‘Jeff, what happened to your money, if you’re from such blue blood…’

    I was forced to admit, that my great great grandfather, ahem… Adolph Harrington spent it retracing the Lewis and Clark trail in 1890 or so. He did it by himself, canoes, trekking etc… Let’s just say, I have an interesting family. (Jonathan Edwards is another grandfather – the Jonathan Edwards – which probably explains my rhetorical prowess).

  24. Steve Layton says:

    Alex wrote: …but Gordon Fitzell’s fabulous piece “violence” on the new 8th blackbird record distracted me.

    I just saw that CD show up on Emusic only last week:

    http://www.emusic.com/album/10987/10987305.html

    I know what I’m downloading tomorrow…

  25. david toub says:

    For most of America, Philip Glass is essentially synonomous with Minimalism, even among people who have never knowingly heard his work. This is perhaps especially true among people who think Minimalism is bad — I suspect that most of the people who would talk scornfully about “music that does the same thing over and over” would cite Glass as the case-in-point (or may not even realize that he’s part of a whole genre).

    Absolutely true, Galen. You and I probably know this more than a lot of others. When my wife wants to show her humorful derision of my music to friends of ours, she tells them that it all “sounds like Philip Glass” and then proceeds to hum a two-note theme over and over and over again. Of course, that really doesn’t sound like Glass at all, nor does my music (or yours, for that matter) resemble Glass. I haven’t written an arpeggio in years, for example 8-)

  26. Wait a minute! (And this isn’t aimed at anybody in particular). There are lots of people with good musical taste, and are well-informed that hate minimalist music BECAUSE it’s so repetitious. It’s just a fact. To pretend it’s a mis-informed or ignorant opinion is missing a very salient point.

    Many people hate new music for good reason. It breaks conventions that ‘define’ good, non-boring serious art music. Same thing goes for atonal and complex music in general. It’s pathetic for us to pretend we’re not breaking boundaries and then pretend the listener is at fault.

    These are ‘listening’ boundaries in many cases. The boundary of length, the boundary of volume, the boundary of repetition or a lack of repetition. These expectations are not bad or stupid. They’re what serious listeners have developed listening to great music!

    No, we’re the ones taking the risk – the risk of alienating our listener – losing them because we think it’s important to take that risk. But nonetheless, we should be honest, that many times it’s not the listener’s fault. That IS the risk we take as new musicians.

    And the consequence is that they just don’t like it. And then it’s our fault – not theirs.

    History will judge whether these risks were worth it. And history is a harsh judge. We pretend it’s forgiving. We pretend that current musical history texts are carved in stone. And that’s delusional.

    We’re very brave to be risking our short span on earth taking these risks. So all props to us… but often, I think we’re missing other things we could be featuring in our music that wouldn’t immediately turn them off many of our serious listeners that would absolutely love to hear something new that doesn’t piss them off. New areas that the young composers in 50 years will no doubt be exploring that we’ve neglected or have not considered worthy.

    Sometimes I really think we’re stuck fighting yesterday’s battles. The battles of the generations before us – and these scars are what make us continue down these non-productive paths. Call them historical post-traumatic stress syndromes of the modern composer…. ;)

  27. Alex Ross says:

    “It’s pathetic for us to pretend we’re not breaking boundaries and then pretend the listener is at fault.” Right on! I hope Schoenberg is listening.

  28. Dude, that guy died back in the 20’s.

  29. Alex Ross says:

    I was actually referring to the great man’s grand-nephew, the spectralist surfing champion Dronal Schoenberg.

  30. Ian Moss says:

    My laptop is damn lucky that there was no soda in my mouth when I read that last comment.

  31. Ian Moss says:

    In any case, to return to the Adams discussion for a moment, I agree with Alex. In fact, I find that Adams has poor name recognition even among conservatory-trained classical musicians. Glass is invariably a name they’ve heard of, however. Reich not so much.

  32. To be clear, I completely agree with Jeff as far as I can tell. I’m deliberately making a distinction between “I hate this” and “I think this is bad” — the former is always acceptable, the latter always risky. For example, I hate Debussy, but I would never say he’s bad. And I think the people who say Glass, or Lloyd Webber, or Schoenberg, or Britney Spears, or John Williams, and so on are “bad” are in fact misinformed or ignorant. Or they mean “I don’t like it” and are speaking imprecisely, which is fine.

  33. I would just like to add that I would very much doubt that Schoenberg’s grand-nephew would engage in such a decadent and pathetic endeavor as composing… however – surfing, big wave surfing – is a noble profession. My favorite documentary of the past few years:

    http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0389326/

    Fuck composing… big waves are real… and unlike critics – they kill.

  34. Alex Ross says:

    For sure. My right shoulder still aches from when a wave socked it on Labor Day weekend. It was, like, totally Taruskin.

  35. Steve Layton says:

    “I could hear the wave coming for what seemed like forever… and it just kept building, like I swear there was major amplitude all the way up to the 26th partial! As the front side hit and lifted me up, I couldn’t do anything but hold on to my board and try and work the gain and EQ like crazy… I managed to push the rez filter just enough to carve a hole out of the spectrum, and just kept sliding straight through the drone, transients crashing over my head… It seemed to go on forever, but finally the whole thing just collapsed in a huge wall of reverb; I was totally swallowed up, and I thought I’d never reach the silence again…”

  36. Shaul Zimmerman says:

    I’ve just finished reading this entire thread top to bottom on one of
    about 45-50 computers here at TAU’s (Tel Aviv U…) Main Library and just wanted to say that I enjoy very much visiting this site and reading what you people have to write! most of the time its in the area of kind of to very interesting. We once had a Site like this here in Israel but it has long been a ghost site…
    Hope this one will last for a long long time!

    and just too add a little relevance to the topic –
    I’m in my first year of composition studies here in the University – at The Buchman-Mehta School of Music. Yes. It’s the same mehta, not his surfing/conducting grandson…:)
    Steve Reich is Schedueled to be here as a part of the “meet some famous compsers from israel and abroad” thing we have at the school.
    If my English will recover from the 10 years gone since I left New Jersey (where I lived for 3 years – West Orange…) I will be sure to write about it!
    Happy New Year too all!
    Shaul.

  37. happy 2007! may we all take incredible risks (musically/other) and live to tell the tale! (musically/other)

  38.