A while back on NPR, I heard Scott Simon interview Marin Alsop about Mahler’s Fifth. Simon kicked it off with a nice quote from Mahler about how a symphony should be like a whole world, then there was this exchange:

SS: …but when Mahler introduced [his Fifth] to the world in 1904, conducting the symphony himself, he apparently was disappointed with its reception. He’s reported to have said, “nobody understood it. I wish I could conduct the first performance fifty years after my death.”… [the music swells, then he introduces Marin Alsop]… Thanks very much for being back with us.
MA: Great to be here, Scott.
SS: And were those words born of great self-knowledge, did it take fifty years for audiences to appreciate this?
MA: Well, that’s tremendously insightful. A good friend of mine, John Corigliano, always says a composer’s work really can’t be judged while he’s still alive, and I think there’s a lot of truth to that.

Though it could be that Alsop was misrepresenting him, the implication is that, by “judged,” Corigliano meant “understood”–composers aren’t understood until they’re dead. And you can’t be appreciated if you aren’t understood. So there it is–death as the ultimate career move.

OK, there was a pattern in the 19th century of the major figures being maybe a generation ahead of their audience–I can see how Mahler might have expected the same thing, and it’s fun to think about how that fifty-year-late premier would have actually gone over. But it’s really just a matter of time. The dying part is a romance that comes from the ones who were tragically cut short in their prime. Van Gogh is the ne plus ultra, but there’s also poor Schubert, and Mozart, sort of, and a few others. It’s great 19th-century mythification, but these day? Are we still expecting big collective ah-ha moments in the 21st century, when audiences finally really get Ligeti, or Reich, or Babbitt, or Corigliano?

I don’t exactly have my finger on the pulse, so I’m wondering. Does anyone else find it, let’s say, over-dramatic for a living composer to be thinking in terms like this? And bizarre for a sophisticated classical music person to take it seriously? Even in a general-public discussion of Mahler it seems like a very tired cliche, doesn’t it? I have a few more thoughts about it on my blog, but I’m still curious to hear other reactions.

30 Responses to “Finding your audience from six feet under”
  1. Kyle Gann says:

    There is so much fantastic music from the last 20 years that has been overlooked, ignored, overshadowed, or considered unfashionable for superficial reasons, that I would find it very peculiar if, several years from now, someone didn’t look back and realize that some wonderful things had happened. And the current renaissance of interest in music of the early 1980s on the Table of the Elements label and elsewhere, music that was mostly ignored at the time, demonstrates that the time lag involved in the appreciation of music has become wider again after shrinking in the 1960s.

  2. David Salvage says:

    You know, I guess I sympathize with what you’re saying. But if I knew for certain that I’d die in, like, six hours — don’t get me wrong, I’d be pretty upset — it would nonetheless be some honest consolation that I had in my life produced some music in which I believed and of which I was proud and which some person — some kindred spirit — could maybe find in the future and hear and enjoy. I’m not betting on this, and I’m not in any way writing for the future. But I think it is completely legitmate for composers to look to the future with optimism and faith as regards their own music and that of others. Should this optimism serve as motivation, I see nothing wrong with it.

  3. Adam Baratz says:

    I think the past is full of music ripe for rediscovery. However, I also think that believing that future audiences will feel for you more than the living ones is akin to believing in an afterlife. Given how rapidly our culture and the ways we use art change, I often wonder whether most dead composers/artists would be happy with our understanding of their work. I’m not saying we don’t make an honest go at interpreting past art, but our understanding of it is colored by events that happened between when they put down the pen and when we looked at the score, things the original artist couldn’t have foreseen.

  4. Adam Baratz says:

    Daniel Wolf had a good post about the issue of the present understanding the past in regards to Webern:

  5. The comment attributed to Corigliano isn’t along the lines of “it’s great that my music will still be around and might speak to somebody even after I’m gone,” which I think is a reasonable paraphrase of what you’re saying, David. That seems like a natural and healthy faith in the communicative value and prospects of your work–without that I don’t see how it would be worth doing in the first place. The comments attributed to Corigliano and Mahler seem to me more like, “too bad I won’t be around when they finally figure out how great I am.”

    Kyle points to Table of the Elements, so I looked up its catalog:
    A few screenfuls of marketing does put the whole thing in a different light, I must say–so many neglected materpieces, so little time! It does seem like there is a different model at work here, though. The classical model that Mahler and, I think, Alsop have in mind is of pieces rising through the muck so that, after the composer dies, they float along with the timeless classics. I wonder, though, if recordings can have the same kind of afterlife that scores do. Anyways, I look at this, and I feel like I’m seeing an animal that eats its young:

    Unclassifiable within any conventional genre, it recalls the improvisation and complex, trance-inducing beats of North African music while adding a crust of no wave bluster and enough percussive artillery to sink a small island. Galliduani, whose saxophone is so heavily treated and processed that it sounds like a wall of guitars, lays down drones then adds weird, fierce, Eastern-tinged polyphonics; meanwhile Kane is a frenzied dervish, generating complex cross-tempos and rhythmic subdivision. Transmission is not only an absolute must-have for fans of either Swans or Jonathan Kane’s bruising present-day efforts…, but an essential missing link from that Lower East Side scene of yesteryear.

    John Cale’s great credit, both inside and outside the Velvet Underground, was to have found the inoculation dosage that would addict the music industry to SOUND without alienating one world from the other. But outside the ‘official’ VU there was also an uncut version of the virus, incubated behind the slum walls of the 1960s Lower East Side, and maintained live in the liquid nitrogen of these insolently recorded reel-to-reel audiotapes, recorded and produced by John Cale and now available in the massive Table of the Elements 3xCD boxed set…

    Rock it does. Typical Gate/Dead C no-fi guitar subduction and Morley’s locked-in-the-car-trunk vocals are prominent, but there’s also a hefty amount of scraping synthesizer menace and paleozoic riffage. The crust of noise is there, but crack open the sonic geode and you’ll discover some nifty songstyling.

    The last one is gratuitous, I know, but “paleozoic riffage” and “sonic geode” back-to-back was too much to resist. I mean no judgment on the music, in any case, since the ad copy lives in its own world. It does highlight the intense specificity that sets recordings apart from scores. And the basic premise seems to be that these albums will surface and then be swallowed up. I wonder what music will have the staying power to resist that.

  6. tig says:

    Just because a retroactive sense of worth is constructed, doesn’t necessarily mean that the contemporary (i.e. the ‘original’) evaluation is any less valid, or that the work/object/music in question is any better understood later. This is akin to taking a reevaluation of the price of a house to mean that the original evaluation was somehow faulty.
    Music doesn’t exist in a context free environment. If we, as musicians and composers, see music as having some cultural (never mind socio-political) significance, then we can at least entertain the possibility that the work/object/music affects the cultural ecology in which it is embedded. Indeed it would be part of that ecology.
    If the rhetoric of the canon is to say that these works were seminal (yuck—how’s that for a phallocentric term), then a canonic work shapes what follows. It’s circular logic to say that a culturally-altered environment will be more, or less, inclined to ‘understand’ the work. We recognize this silliness when, say, a politician claims that history will affirm their actions.

    I am, however, assuming, for the purposes of this argument, that the category of ‘the musical work’ is not problematic over time and space; that the boundary and identity of ‘the work’ does not changed over time. If, on the other hand, we do pull apart ‘the work’—problematize the fully mobile, timeless notion—we have none of the twists we’re now getting into….

    S, tig

  7. Kyle Gann says:

    Ba-dum bing. How clever, dismissing music you haven’t heard based on its record-company ad copy. Yet none of your quotations are from the music I was referring to. I am astonished by the number of young musicians I meet who are fanatics about avant-garde music from the ’70s and early ’80s that I and my friends loved at the time, but that seemed to have gone by the wayside since: Phill Niblock, Julius Eastman, Rhys Chatham, Charlemagne Palestine, Tony Conrad, Arnold Dreyblatt. Table of the Elements is merely the tip of the iceberg. Of course the model has evolved, and for the composers I write about, recordings have vastly surpassed scores as the primary units of transmission – which does not mean that the recordings are only recordings, and that the music can’t be resurrected in performance. I just directed a performance of an Eastman piece that hadn’t been heard live in 25 years, and there’s a tremendous upsurge in interest in his music (including upcoming concerts at Miller Theater) even though he’s been dead for 17 years. It’s a tried and true strategy of the classical-music-is-dying crowd to define classical music in such a way as to preclude any possibility of the model evolving, so that when you show them evidence of continued creativity in the field, they can say, “no, that’s not what I meant.” It took 20 years for the avant-garde of the early ’80s to sink in and become crucial to today’s young composers – and in many cases, even to get commercially recorded – and I have faith that interest in music of the late ’80s and ’90s will follow in due time.

  8. Aaron says:

    As a brief aside … what is it, exactly, that audiences aren’t ‘getting’ in Corigliano?

    I can see how it would take some simmering time b/f a wider audience got, say, Tony Conrad’s work (which (and whom) I absolutely adore), but … is Corigliano’s music really so demanding for contemporary ears that it’s waiting for some future audience?

  9. Another take: the presence of a living composer is something very different from the absence of a dead one. Cage, for example, can no longer be dismissed with the same effectiveness using quite the same lines as he could be while alive. You can still call him a charlatan, but the point would be less and less useful, since he’s not around to “fool” people anymore. His influence, also his presence in terms of recordings available, actually seems to have increased since his death fifteen years back.

  10. Alex Ross says:

    Michael Morley of the Dead C is in fact one of the great rock noise artists.

    The irony here is that Mahler was enormously popular among audiences during his own lifetime, a few unsuccessful premieres notwithstanding. Here are some samples i collected:

    “…a storm of applause broke out at the end of every movement…” (First Symphony), “Such enthusiasm is seen only once in a lifetime! Afterward, I saw grown men weeping and youths falling on each others’ necks” (Second Symphony), “…the public was seized by a wild frenzy…” (Third Symphony), “…highly enthusiastic…definitely a great success…” (Fifth Symphony), “Again and again he had to return to the platform to receive the congratulations and thanks of the crowded audience” (Sixth Symphony), “…all imaginable signs of sincere, honest, and unfeigned admiration…” (Seventh Symphony).

    The premiere of the Eighth in Munich was, of course, the greatest triumph of all, a scene of mass adulation such as few composers have ever enjoyed. What troubled Mahler, and made him think that he was neglected in his own time, was the obdurate fact that select music critics in Berlin, Vienna, and New York dismissed his music. Strauss always got the better press.

  11. My apologies, Kyle, for seeming to dismiss the music. I honestly meant no judgment, as I said after the quotes–I knew at the time I should have highlighted that more, but it was late and I was in a hurry. I take it as self-evident that the ad copy has no bearing on the quality of the music. But it’s not the slick product of some well-oiled publicity machine like Warner Bros. While there is a clear financial incentive involved, the blurbs read more like personal ads–enthusiast seeks same. I think they say more than a little about the terms of engagement between the music and a significant contingent of its audience.

    Do you think, though, that these pieces will stay in currency after 2 or 3 generations, the way significant scores do, or that the tendency will be for them to be absorbed and recycled (I’m not suggesting it’s either/or)? I would think that, after a few generations, new recordings would reinterpret older ones in something like the way performances reinterpret old scores, except that with recordings the new ones would be more likely to supplant the old ones. That is the new model I had in mind. It seems to me that an offshoot of the classical tradition that was not so inclinded keep all of its historical baggage in tow would be a pretty good thing. It’s just a half-baked intuition, but it’s not meant to write anything off as unworthy because it’s not really “classical.”

    Anyways, I think Kyle is entirely persuasive that important, vital musicians are still finding themselves ahead of much of the audience and that, if they stay true to their convictions, the audience sometimes (often? occasionally?) comes around. I think it’s the convictions that really matter, though, not the idea that the audience will come around. Kyle is talking about a lag of a few decades–it would still be rather grandiose for them to imagine they need to die before their music will be understood. It’s the whiff of martyrdom, or at least death and ressurection, that’s implicit in the Mahler and Alsop/Corigliano quotes that I find hard to take.

  12. Daniel Wolf says:

    Alex Ross wrote: “Strauss always got the better press.”

    From our perspective, this has always been difficult to understand, and the assumption is that the critical press was a conservative one. However, it’s useful to consider the possibility that the Strauss of the first decade of the 20th century was the more progressive figure, as the composer of Salome, Elektra and not Rosenkavalier, and that the radical shifts in continuity in _Also sprach Zarathustra_, a work we now associate inevitably with apes beating their chests around a stone monolith, provided a tremendous influence to younger composers, for example Bartok, for whom Zarathustra was the decisive impulse for the _Dance Suite_.

    Mahler, on the other hand, as a composer of Symphonies, was viewed by the critics of the time — who turn out to be a much more progressive bunch than one might have expected — as rather more a restorative and nostalgic figure.

    But, critics and our retrospective invention of a rivalry aside, it’s useful to remember Mahler’s own words to Strauss: “Menschen wie wir sollten nie Concessionen machen!” (People like us should never make concessions!).

  13. Kyle Gann says:

    That’s sort of like asking me if my wife is a good person. I’ve written articles about this music, I write books about it, I have entirely staked my reputation as a scholar on it. Am I sincere? If you doubt my books, why would you believe the answer to that question? I wrote about Nancarrow and La Monte Young among the older generation, now I write about Duckworth and Chatham and Branca and Mikel Rouse and Michael Gordon and Eve Beglarian with equal conviction. As a composer, I believe their music merits being remembered. I don’t vouch for the continunance of the human race too many more decades, but as a historian with considerable perspective, I am convinced that if culture continues, their music will be remembered. Why doubt it of this music in particular? From what I’ve seen of the younger generation, I believe that guitar ensembles will flourish and become more prominent, and if so, Chatham’s Guitar Trio and Drastic Classicism and An Angel Moves Too Fast to See (all recorded on Table of the Elements) and the early Branca guitar pieces will be the cornerstones of that repertoire. What you could mean by “absorbed and recycled” I have no earthly idea. What music gets remembered depends partly on who champions it and how eloquently, and I have done my best. The rest is up to others. If this music goes down to oblivion, I will be proud to go down with it.

  14. I also thought it was weird that in the radio interview they were talking about composers not being understood during their lifetime and the names that came up were Mahler and Corigliano. I didn’t realize just how positive Mahler’s press was, though–thanks, Alex, for the specifics.

    Thanks also for the tip about Michael Morley. Based on the blurb I was already pretty intrigued, and I’m glad to hear that the phrase “crack open the sonic geode” wasn’t wasted on junk–there should be some kind of award for metaphors like that.

    I like the point Adam and tig make, too. It’s comforting to imagine that, if people like your music better in 20 years or after you die it’s because they’ve come to understand it, but they could just as well like it more because they understand at least some aspects of it less (since understanding is a multidimensional thing). I’m not sure what to make, though, of “problematizing the full mobile, timeless notion…”

    As to Cage, yes, maybe his music is more approachable now that he’s not around anymore. He was hard to take piecemeal, since he tended to call everything into question. But quite reasonable to imagine that what the composer’s death means for the music’s afterlife will be quite different for Cage than, say, Ligeti.

  15. I’ll try this one last angle on my obscure question, Kyle, and thank you for your patience along the way. Consider Louis Armstong and Mozart. Within their respective traditions, Armstrong is the more central, formative figure, not to mention the more recent, but if you look at CD sales or radio play, Mozart is much more of a day-to-day presence on the classical side than Armstrong is on the jazz side. Nobody’s about to forget Armstrong, nor are his recordings going away–he is omnipresent but in a heavily mediated form. So, late in the 21st century, will the presence of, say, Glenn Branca and Rhys Chatham be more like Mozart or Armstrong?

  16. Alex Ross says:

    I’m not sure that I would so far as to say, as Daniel Wolf does, that Strauss was more “progressive” than Mahler. Certainly I would say that he was anything but a reactionary, and not just in the Salome stage of his career. Writing about twentieth-century music, I find it useful to abandon the reactionary/progressive spectrum altogether.

    The point is not that Mahler’s press was positive. It’s that the audience was positive. His press was very often negative. Moral: Don’t give a damn what critics say, unless they’re being nice (and even then take it with a grain of salt).

  17. “Afterward, I saw grown men weeping and youths falling on each others’ necks” Apparently Mahler inspired Vampirism back in the day. . .

    On a more serious note, there are a couple of serious problems with unstated premises in this discussion. The first is that the very nature of “the canon” is changing (or disolving away, depending on how you look at it). Classical music is no longer the dominant musical culture in the West, and so we’re probably never going to see a composer of the public stature of somebody like Mahler again — there just aren’t enough people who care. Within classical music itself, there remains a canon of sorts, and especially when you don’t limit yourself to the Orchestra that canon is steadily growing. But the very definition of “canon” is that it comprises a group of works that basically everybody knows, and classical music is fragmenting. As that fragmentation evolves, people in one segment will have less and less interest in and need for the great works of other segments. Certain works will become canonical for one genre and be ignored by others, and some works will be resurrected after the death of the composer. But the expectation that those works will be as widely accepted as Mahler is misguided because the structure of the industry makes it impossible. Note also that the works Kyle cites but which Robert seems skeptical of are in fact canonical in some genres/traditions and relatively irrelevant in others. And thus they will be remembered by some communities and forgotten by others. How many people reading this are familiar with the Sisters of Mercy album “Floodland” or the Skinny Puppy album “Last Rights”? The former is a classic, canonical work in Gothic music, and extrodinarily popular and influential in that genre; the latter is a classicl, canonical work in Industrial music and is similarly popular and influential within that genre. Those albums will not be forgotten as long as those scenes exist, but the general population has never heard of them.

    The other false premise is that the percieved lack of interest in the work of Corigliano or any other living composer arises from a failure on the part of the audience to understand the work. It may be true that some parts of the audience don’t understand it, but they don’t understand it not because it’s inherently difficult or ahead of the curve, they don’t understand it because they don’t care. I don’t understand country music, but it’s not because country music is difficult, it’s because I haven’t bothered because I’ve decided the investment isn’t worth the payoff to me. People aren’t going to like Corigliano’s work after he’s dead because they will have caught up with him — the only thing that might happen is that for some reason people will decide that they care about his work. But I kinda think everybody who’s going to care about him already does, since he’s already a superstar within the contemporary classical music world.

    Philip Glass once said something to the effec that music doesn’t become more accepted because people have been convinced, but rather that you never convince anybody and eventually the people who didn’t like you die and new people come along who like you. That sounds about right to me. John Cage and Morton Feldman have been poshumously added to the canon of reputable composers because the conservatives who didn’t care about them have died out and the younger generations are interested (and in part that interest is in iconoclasts, not necessarily in the music they wrote). The great tradgedy of Cage, of course, is that while everybody has heard of him not many people actually know his music.

    To make my key point more concise and pithy: What we like or dislike generally drives what we understand or don’t understand, not the other way around, because we only bother trying to understand those things which we think will be worth understanding.

  18. Interesting original topic! Dying is a great way for a composer to command attention…problem is that death, in addition to being permanent, can ruin your day.

    The silver lining for composers (once they do start de-composing) is the hope that somewhere down the road the discovery and eventual review of their works will provide a reviewer more freedom to theorize, dream, wonder and romanticize their music; which in most cases will create a more compelling story than having the living composer right there to interview.

    The worst saleman of a work is the composer him/herself…better to hear/read about it from a valid opinion once removed.

  19. Whether composers *can* be judged while they’re alive, they *are,* and it’s foolish of Corigliano to insist or hope that people will hold off until the author is dead to start evaluating. The work can’t be judged in total while they’re alive, because there’s always another project on the table that hasn’t been heard yet. It’s odd when you read Virgil Thomson’s reviews of Shostakovich’s “late” symphonies and realize that he means the Seventh and Eighth. It’s also what makes criticism so valuable, because you know what an informed listener thought at the time, someone who could no more have predicted the sound of Shostakovich’s Fifteenth than he could predict the outcome of the next presidential election.

  20. Antonio Celaya says:

    “Posterity is as likely to be wrong as anyone else.” – Heywood Broun

    It seems to me that worrying about posterity is a pointless endeavor. One’s music may be quite moving to one’s contemporaries and exquisitely crafted and posterity will have little interest. It is only during the last 125 years or so, when the literate music tradition began to focus on prior eras with increasing intensity that the European tradition has had to worry about posterity. Our era’s use of music of the past is in some sense a misuse. If one’s interest is communicating with music then it is likely that future listeners will get something entirely different our music than we intended. My perceived misuse assumes that music is always conveying something, even if it is only the values and image of a particular class. (Yes Igor, music is always about something, and you damn well knew it!).

    I admire Josquin as much as any composer. However, I doubt that I “get” much of what Josquin intended his audience to get. I may get the broadest symbols such as the slowing on “et in carnatus est” (time to genuflect). However, I doubt that as a person bombarded by centuries of functional tonality can relate t the polyphony in the same manner. I can teach myself to recognize the gestures like the famous descending cycle in “Absolon Fili Mi.” However, I don’t think that I can perceive them with the same intensity or preconceptions of someone living through the counter-reformation (a condition for which I ought to be grateful). How can I make the same use of the music intended for the mass in concert setting? Perhaps much of the music we adore today was not to the taste of tis time. Was that age wrong, or have we simply interpreted the past to mean what we would like it to me?

    I attend concerts of Chinese music fro time to time. Chinese culture seems to find ways relating to tradition far more comfortably than the European tradition.

    I think we often unconsciously assume that if something is adopted by posterity it must be part of a high art tradition. We also assume it must be good – though we rarely as “good for what?” The assumption that posterity is always right is a bit like Papal Infallibility. Were Popes who denied the doctrine of Papal Infallibility in error? Was the Pope who adopted the doctrine of infallibility in error? Was the era after Mahler’s death that shunned Mahler “wrong” or is out Mahler-loving age “right?” If future audiences tire of Mahler will they be “wrong?” Don’t worry about pleasing posterity. Take the cash and let the credit go. You won’t enjoy the adulation of posterity, even if it arrives.

    I think that the whole situation is somewhat more complicated by the fact that we have musical presentation system that mixes music that seeks a high art goal with those that seek a popular art end. High art is not better than popular art, but it requires that it be perceived in a different manner. High art requires that the listener understand the subtle interplay of elements of a tradition. Popular art seeks more direct statement. Let me clarify. PFunk is fairly far along the continuum towards high art because it requires the listener or dancer to conscious complex and subtle rhythmic relationships. The tembang tradition of java is a high art practiced by nonprofessionals, who appreciate play with poetic and musical traditions. “La Boheme” is far more along the continuum towards popular art – the 2nd Act works as well as any act of any opera but that doesn’t make it high art.

    Live for today!

  21. Kyle Gann says:

    So, late in the 21st century, will the presence of, say, Glenn Branca and Rhys Chatham be more like Mozart or Armstrong?

    Neither, quite obviously. Branca and Chatham have proved, so far, relatively one-dimensional figures, important innovators, but not the kinds of wide-ranging artists who excel in a variety of different genres. I’d think of either of them as being more like Debussy (in starting impressionism with Afternoon of a Faun), or like Reich in creating the first minimalist works. I think their early music will continue to merit interest and performance decades from now. That doesn’t mean I’m claiming that they’re the kinds of seminal artists around whom all future creation will revolve.

    For that matter, I think Mozart’s racheted-up 20th-century reputation is a creation of the culture industry, but that’s another story.

  22. tig says:

    Robert Zimmerman: “I like the point Adam and tig make, too. It’s comforting to imagine that, if people like your music better in 20 years or after you die it’s because they’ve come to understand it, but they could just as well like it more because they understand at least some aspects of it less…..”

    Which is definitely not what I was trying to say, but, hey, it does, ironically, illustrate my point ;-)

    “I’m not sure what to make, though, of ‘problematizing the full mobile, timeless notion…’”

    Very simple. Let’s take, fairly arbitrarily, a ‘work’, say Moteverdi’s Vespers. We may assume that this ‘work’ is transcendental—that its identity is/was somehow stable and durable over time and (cultural) space. We may assume that what we (here and now) recognize, or understand, as Moteverdi’s Vespers corresponds in some way to an entity that may or may not have existed four hundred years ago.
    These are, however, assumptions that, even with a cursory historical examination, do not stand up to scrutiny. Certainly from a reception history point of view, and that’s really what we’re discussing, it makes more sense to problematize this construct—the stable, durable, transcendental ‘work’—than to assume that this ‘work’, and its ‘value’, exists free of understanding, and independent of reception.

    S, tig

  23. I stand corrected, Alex. I should have said what I was thinking, which is that I’m no longer wondering whether Mahler was being whiney or not. As for dropping the reactionary/progressive spectrum, it’s a very very bad idea. How’s anyone gonna know what side you’re on?

  24. I have to say that I’m a bemused about how I’ve been taken, by Kyle and Galen, at least, as being dismissive of the value or staying power of Kyle’s canon. For the record, I’m not.

    Anyways, one miscommunication naturally leads to another. What I was reacting to with the Mozart/Armstrong analogy was Kyle’s saying “What you could mean by ‘absorbed and recycled’ I have no earthly idea.” Armstrong is, to my mind, continuously absorbed and recycled. You’d vastly underestimate his significance if you went by the amount of play his recordings get on the radio and his percentage of CD sales. In general I’m suggesting that this is the way things are likely to be in traditions where recordings are the primary means of transmission and where individuality and innovation are highly valued. I wasn’t at all suggesting we might be talking about Mozart or Armstrong-like figures.

  25. Galen, I more or less agree with the premises you outline but don’t think they’re all that significant. It is true that part of the reason that I thought the NPR interview was absurd was the way they alluded to both Mahler and a contemporary classical composer contemplating their music in posterity as if the stakes were the same in both cases. I imagine Mahler’s perspective on the musical world of his day as roughly analogous to Saul Steinberg’s famous View of the World from 9th Avenue. The cultural landscape is fragmented now (I’m assuming we all take that for granted), with classical music and other art musics on the periphery, so I would think that even the most egotistical contemporary classical composer would have more modest expectations, not to mention more important things to think about. That’s just my personal reaction. It’s quite interesting to me that others don’t react in the same way, but finding that out was the reason I posted in the first place, so I’m not complaining.

    It’s easy to make too much of the fragmentation issue, in any case. The world of people you can relate to and whose musical interests and values intersect with yours is not that much different, in practical, psychological terms, than “the general public.” Kyle’s post of Feb 9 is as eloquent an example of that as you’re likely to find. I’m going out on a limb and saying that I’m pretty sure he isn’t motivated by the idea that the music he advocates will become universal, so long as it flourishes and can be heard. But his program strikes me as much more meaningful and generous than fretting about how no one will appreciate his music until he dies.

    As for Corigliano, there’s a premise, I think, but not a false one or even an unspoken one, since Aaron raised the point yesterday. He’s already pretty darned successful with the audience that’s available to him. It’s conceivable that he’s concerned about his reputation in academic and critical circles. I don’t want to attribute anything to him, personally, based on a second-hand comment, but I’d love to hear what he has to say on the matter. He never drops in here?

    I’m ultra doubtful that you don’t understand country music, Galen. If you tuned in a random country song on the radio, I’m sure you’d have no trouble picking out the verse and the chorus, the phrasing, the cadences. You’d follow the expressive shifts into minor, and you’d know why the strings come in with a big swell when she leaves him. You’d have no trouble with the lyrics, or the signficance of the twang. I think the strong dislike that country music inspires in American listeners (this is based mostly on my interactions with the students in my classes) is precisely because it’s read so clearly.

    Obviously I’m speculating, not claiming to be able to read your mind–if I’m offbase I’d be very interested to hear about it.

  26. Tom DePlonty says:

    Reading this thread is seems like several ideas are getting a little tangled. One is the composer with a Beethoven complex (wasn’t he supposed to have said, about one of the late string quartets, that it was written for a future age?). Another is that it takes a while for innovative music to find recognition and influence. And a third is the truism that a composer is dead before we can understand the work (in historical perspective), because it just takes that much time. I took what Corigliano-via-Alsop said to mean the latter, so it didn’t seem strange, although like tig I think it’s highly debatable.

  27. Robert — The only reason you’re off-base is that I wasn’t very clear. There are plenty of things I do understad about country music, but those are the things that it has in common with other music that I’ve bothered to learn about. At the same time, though, I’m confident that there are all sorts of country music tropes that I’m totally ignorant about — the meanings of stylistic traits, which elements are more important to good country music than others, stuff like that. I don’t know what those things are (becuase I haven’t learned to understand them) but the fact that most country music sounds the same to me is something that I take as evidence that I’m totally missing the point. But I don’t like what I hear enough to bother learning what that point is, so I just try not to say ignorant things about country music and I go on my way.

  28. The bit about not judging a composer until he’s dead does seem like no more than the commonplace that Tom mentions (it’s not quite vacuous enough to be true truism). I was trying to turn it into something that answers Scott Simon’s question. Silly me! When I was transcribing the bit of the interview that I quoted, I did vaguely register that Alsop seems to be mentally fumbling at first. I think when she says “that’s tremendously insightful” she’s thinking “born of great self-knowledge? wtf!?” A bit of a Rosanne Rosannadanna moment, but I feel better now.

    Galen, I see what you mean now, I think–not that you have no idea what’s going on in a country song but that you don’t understand enough to tell the good ones from the bad ones. Fwiw, if you get around to it someday, there’s lots of great country songs to be found.

  29. Graham Rieper says:

    “but as a historian with considerable perspective, I am convinced that if culture continues, their music will be remembered”

    Good Lord, I’ve forgotten their music already.

  30. T.D. Lake says:

    Here’s what I think: I remember that a Stephen Stills song was used in a car advertisement 10 or so years ago, and everyone in the Boomer generation had a cow. His response? “Well it’s just music, it’s not exactly Mozart.”

    It doesn’t bother me that indeed, if you’re going to be well-studied in the conservatory that it may be late in your career or after your death when it happens. Very true. What bothers me is that everyone seems to think in terms of “Oh the suffering artist, I’ll be remembered when I die.” That’s a load of hogwash.

    Here’s my goal: to write good music, to have it be played, to hear what people think of it, and to write more. Not to be widely accepted by an academic community that doesn’t love music but numbers and letters, and not to become the 21st Century’s version of Mozart.

    Mahler’s own comment is a little narcisstic. One doesn’t write music 50 years in the future but right now. Mahler deserved attention, but I guess working at a top Conservatory in the world and being played by a massive symphony orchestra wasn’t good enough.