What Gets Heard?

Three quotes from pieces recently appearing online that are very much worth reading:

“Some quick research shows that Harris, Mennin, Piston, Schuman and Elliott Carter (who together wrote more than 100 concert symphonic works) had, in the past five years, a total of just 20 performances by US orchestras. Meanwhile, a look at the 2015-16 season shows that UK audiences hear as many as 19 major works by British composers – Tippett, Walton, Britten, Vaughan Williams – performed by each leading orchestra in each season.”

– Alan Fletcher, President and CEO of the Aspen Music Festival and School, in a blog post at The Guardian

“The cases of Tim Souster and Bill Hopkins are relevant to this, because once a composer is no longer with us—both these two were born in 1943, the year also of Brian Ferneyhough; Hopkins died at thirty-seven, Souster at fifty-one—and therefore no longer a present personality, the music fades. Neither do you have to die young for this to happen, nor do you have to be British. I could mention many U.S. composers who have become posthumously inaudible: Jacob Druckman, Donald Martino, Mel Powell, Ralph Shapey. And the same fate overtakes individual works all the time, the première being a kind of death. Even widespread esteem is no protection. Harrison Birtwistle’s Exody has had eleven performances in over seventeen years; compare that with the fifty performances enjoyed by Bartók’s Music for Strings, Percussion, and Celesta in one season (that of 1937-8) when it was new. Of course, the Bartók is for smaller resources, but it was hardly less irregular by the standards of the orchestral habits of its time, and we’re talking here about an almost hundredfold difference in exposure.”

– Paul Griffiths, critic, author of numerous books on music, librettist for Carter’s What’s Next? in a conversation with Matt Mendez at Music and Literature

“At least 95% of all composers get better with age. A very small minority get worse, but this is usually because of illness: Schumann and Stockhausen spring to mind – and there are a few, like Mendelssohn, who sprang forth fully fledged, and didn’t really develop. But they are also a small minority. Yet there is more and more emphasis on and support for so-called ’emerging composers’ – most of whom, I am sad to say, are left on the scrap heap when they turn 40. I am now old enough to have seen this happen over and over again. In one or two of my curatorial positions, like juror for Schloss Solitude in Germany, I have had desperate letters from composers just over 40, who have won international competitions, and whose careers have suddenly come to a halt. Because they are no longer emerging, they are of no interest. The composers are bewildered and bereft. I think this is morally wrong.

“There is no such thing, in my opinion, as an emerging composer. There are gifted composers and there are not-so-gifted composers. Age is irrelevant. Emerging, who cares? Publicists.”

– composer Kevin Volans in his keynote speech at an international conference held by the Contemporary Music Centre of Ireland

There are plenty of reasons here for astonishment and fury. A single piece by Birtwistle has had 11 performances in 17 years while all the orchestral music of Harris, Mennin, Piston, Schuman and Carter has received 20 performances in the past five years in the U.S. This reminds me of the remark of Michael Kimmelman in the New York Times that Boulez’s Répons has been “rarely performed, just a few dozen times.” My point here is the wildly differing numbers of performances of music by American and European composers.

Griffiths quite rightly observes that the music of Druckman, Martino, Powell, and Shapey has been little played after the death of those composers. Certainly, it does not get played with a frequency anywhere nearly commensurate with their formidable musical contributions. But you don’t have to be dead for that to be the case, as Kevin Volans points out. There is a middle generation of composers that is getting overlooked. Speaking as an American composer, it seems the generation of (to use rough figures) ’38 and the generation of ’78 have received, or are receiving, a goodly number of performances while at least a portion of my own generation – that of ’58 – not so much, though practitioners of some styles have made further headway than others, and there are a very few composers who have achieved remarkable prominence in certain genres like opera or art song. I think one issue is the desire of classical music institutions to attract younger audiences by programming music by younger composers. Since composers my age are unlikely to be able to DJ the party after the concert, what good are we? In a healthier musical environment, there would be a different sort of balance in programming among composers living and recently deceased, among composers of various ages, among composers of differing nationalities. And repeat performances would mean that no longer would the premiere be “a kind of death”.

“Modern Music” continued

A few responses to my post on Paul Griffiths’ Modern Music and After have come in, notably a gracious one from the author himself (see the comments for the original post). It certainly gives the well-intentioned but definitely amateur bloggist pause when the name of a pro of that caliber appears in one’s inbox after you’ve been critical of his book.

My gripes with the book come down to two things: it is very Eurocentric, and very – for lack of a better word – “avant-garde-centric”. Daniel Wolf at Renewable Music finds fault with my listing of “establishment East Coast composers” that are not mentioned in the book. (Actually, Hartke is based in California and Shapey worked in Chicago, while Mel Powell was in California as well as the East Coast.) The list could be amended to include composers from other parts of the country, and to include more downtown and experimentalist artists, but the real point of my list of excluded Americans, in conjunction with my list of little known but included Europeans, is simply to support my assertion that the book is terribly Eurocentric. A different approach would recruit more Americans as part of Griffiths’s avant-garde project, and/or would do more to look at a range of American work and in so doing be led to question the supremacy of the avant-garde point of view. The seeds of the latter are there, in Griffiths’ brief but appreciative comments on Druckman and Stucky. Wolf goes on to say that the Americans I list don’t “bother to make musical history” preferring to be “musical quietists”. (It is hard to imagine Shapey or Martino or Steve Mackey as “musical quietists” who don’t want to rock the boat.) Two questions arise – what counts as “making musical history”? It is not so clear anymore just who is a progressive and who is a regressive composer – or if those categories have lost their meaning. The second question is why should “making musical history”, let alone “nest-dirtying”, be a decision criteria for what is of musical interest?

Two small points – it’s Primosch, not Primrosch. And Wuorinen did get edited out of the third edition, save for a mention of one of his articles.

Renewable Music is definitely worth a visit, with a good deal of thoughtful writing. And don’t miss the Boulez and Stockhausen parodies under the post label “Cheap Imitations”.

In my zeal to complain about the limitations of Griffiths’ book I passed over its considerable virtues, and I’ll be writing more about the book in another post.

Whose “Modern Music” and whose “After”?

“…the preemininent introduction to the music of our time.”

Actually, no. In contrast to the publisher’s note, as Paul Griffiths is quick to admit in the first sentence of the third edition of his Modern Music and After, “This is not a history of music since 1945”. Rather, the “modern” of the title is overwhelmingly the post-war European avant-garde, particularly Boulez and Stockhausen, with a bit of time spent on Cage and Babbitt. The “after” refers more to those composers attempting to carry on the post-war avant-garde traditions – call them the neo-avant-garde – rather than “after” in the sense of alternatives to that avant-garde.

There are two kinds of selectivity at play here. The first is that Griffiths has little or nothing to say about music that does not spring from the post-war European avant-garde or a few contemporaneous alternatives that share an experimental outlook. Other musics simply do not exist. The second is Griffith’s overwhelming emphasis on European music. Among the American composers not even mentioned in the book are Harbison, Corigliano, Martino, Shapey, Davidovsky, Zwilich, Tower, Reynolds, Johnston, Kernis, Rouse, Lieberson, Melinda Wagner, Powell, Schwantner, del Tredici, Currier, Mackey, Hartke, Wernick – the list goes on and on. Rochberg is mentioned (and dismissed), I think because the extremity of his aesthetic vision fits with Griffith’s ideal of the avant-garde as all-important. Wuorinen is mentioned as a writer, not even identified as a composer. Oddly, Druckman and Stucky serve as token inclusions. Ashley is mentioned only in passing, as are the members of the Bang on a Can triumvirate of Wolfe, Gordon, and Lang. Crumb is mentioned only to be quickly dismissed – why, according to Griffith, the references to tonal music in Crumb don’t work while those in the music of the European avant-garde are successful is never explained. Adams is treated with snarky condescension. As for more conservative artists active during this period – Barber or Poulenc, are of course ignored, Britten and Shostakovich quickly passed over. Griffiths doesn’t even deal with the Americans who are more closely connected with the European avant-garde he idolizes. You would think he would find a place for Roger Reynolds or Jason Eckhardt, but you won’t find their names in this book’s index. And European composers who do not worship at the high altar of modernism, like Adés and Knussen, are given inappropriately modest space.

Now, it will be argued that you can only fit in so many names in a book of this kind. Then why on earth is there room for obscure and marginal Europeans like Hugh Wood, Bill Hopkins, Rolf Riehm (not to be confused with Wolfgang Rihm) Gérard Pesson, Pierluigi Billone, and Brice Pauset? I actually thought “Bill Hopkins” (you have to admit, it is an unlikely name for a French composer) was a prank, a fictitious composer invented by Griffiths to illustrate some point, but no, Hopkins did exist, and he gets three pages in a book that passes over all the Americans mentioned above. I am happy to make the acquaintance of names that are new to me, but to do so in a book that purports to be a history of post-war music – even of a certain kind of post-war music – and that omits so many important names in American music is vexing in the extreme.

One of the truly absurd assertions Griffiths makes is to uphold Lachenmann as a composer of moral seriousness. This comes right out of Adorno, the idea that “if people don’t like it, it must be good” – and not only good aesthetically but morally. Lachenmann is quoted as saying the ‘all-suffocating barbarism diagnosed by [Karl] Kraus was not overcome through the two world wars [gee, is that why they were fought?] – on the contrary, it came to infiltrate all areas of life in a fatally harmless guise: as a culture of “fun” whose universal, cheapened availability gives rise to a rapid devaluation of all that has been precious to us as artistic experience. We are thus today once again faced with the task of bringing art “to safety”…discarding false securities, and doing this with reference to an innovatively-oriented work-ideal that subjects our experience of music to constant dialectical renewal.” You might expect that that passage had been written in perhaps 1951, but no, it dates from the 21st century. Let’s translate it: discarding false securities means rejecting anything other than the avant-garde impulse, probably referring to any neo-romanticism; “innovatively-oriented” – as though innovation was itself valuable, one of the biggest mistakes in 20th century music. Pound’s “make it new” is a pretty tired old dictum by now. “Subjects our experience of music to constant dialectical renewal” – but why is a dialectical relationship necessary for renewal? Lachenmann is talking about a compulsory state of rebellion that is no less a conformity than the compulsory rebelliousness that supposedly gives pop culture its specious “vitality”. In a sense, Lachenmann’s position is actually very close to that of the capitalist culture he mistakenly thinks he is challenging. The truly rebellious alternative to the conformities of the avant-garde and pop worlds would be an attitude that seeks greater continuity with earlier traditions, honoring innovation but not placing it above all else.

It is telling that two of the mistakes in the book have to do with musical examples. In a discussion of the third movement of Berio’s Sinfonia, surely it is the sleigh bells, and not the snare drum that the percussionist has previously been handling that recall the Mahler 4th in Berio’s Sinfonia. And in an analysis of a passage by George Benjamin, Griffiths states “One may note also that the third of these chords has its outline picked up by the second viola in the third bar…” In fact, the second viola plays the outer voices of the second chord in the fifth bar of the example. The third chord played by the first viola is in the fourth bar of the example, and there the second viola’s sustained pitches are not the outer voices (what I assume Griffths means by “outline”).

Griffiths is a superb writer and you will learn a great deal from him about that which he chooses to discuss. But as a history of “Modern Music and After”, the book is a grotesque travesty.

Monk, Modern(ist), and Network

– Ethan Iverson’s observations on Monk in the context of the recent Martial Solal concert here in Philly share some points with my own thoughts.

– I’ve started reading Paul Griffith’s Modern Music and After. Customary brilliant writing, questionable vision of what’s important in the last 60 years of music. More comments soon.

Network for New Music presents music from Japan, including works by Dai Fujikura, Takemitsu, and a Gene Coleman video. Friday, April 15 at International House here in Philly. Go to the Network page about this event for a link to a Red Cross site where you can make donations to help Japan.