An article published in the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra New Music Festival programme in 2010.
Attempting to see patterns in history is a dangerous undertaking. Human beings live lives which are short in comparison to the machinery of history. We can make the mistake of assuming that what we see in the brief years of our lives is somehow significant in the long term. We forget that the course of the world can change incredibly quickly, but is equally likely to change incredibly slowly.
The age of western art music is short. Humans who were anatomically identical to us have walked the earth for 200,000 years, and those whose behavioral patterns were comparable to ours have been here for 50,000 years. But art music, in any contemporary culture, is less than 9000 years old. In the western world, in the traditions of Mozart and Bartok, art music is not even 1000 years old. It is not difficult to see that humans walked the earth without art music for far longer than music has occupied this important role for us.
Has music always been part of human experience? The evidence seems to suggest that, at the very least, it has been part of our development for a very long time. Will it always be a part of the human experience? We believe so. We hope so.
But we seem to be living in a unique time. Looking back as dispassionately as possible, it seems that the beginning of the 20th century saw the beginning of an astonishingly rapid development of musical style which was characterized by a systematic pushing of the boundaries, a calculated “breaking of the rules” on the part of composers. By the 1960s, it appeared that all the rules had been broken, and the 1970s saw many composers taking stock of what had happened. By this time, audiences had been alienated, regarding any new music with suspicion. The modernist fundamentalists continued to preach progress, but did not really offer any clear direction. Bombastic modernism, the mixture of tonality and atonality, extended techniques, the use of electronics– all these devices were not new at all, just updates of what had already happened. The prophets of modernism convinced themselves that they were blazing new trails, but audiences just yawned and turned away.
The anti-modernists, on the other hand, began searching the catalogues for something that would allow them to compose music and still maintain a relationship with an audience. Many looked backwards, embracing older languages. Many attempted to abstract languages and use them as building blocks, in a style we called post-modernism. Many turned to pop music and asserted that classical music was dead. But all of these approaches carried the same problem as the solutions of the modernists– what was fresh about any of this? Why listen to bad Brahms copies when you could listen to Brahms? What was engaging about pastiche, even with a complex intellectual justification? Why write cheap pop imitations when even pop composers were beginning to rehash their own work? What made contemporary pop crossover any different from the crossover of jazz in the 1920s, 30s, and 40s, a style which died away?
Are we living, as composer Valentin Silvestrov asserts, in the coda of the age of music? Are the sombre fundamentalist assertions of the modernists and the gleeful commercial zeal of the creators of faux pop music symptoms of decadence? Is this a genuine turning point in the pattern of musical history, or just a blip in the curve?
Perhaps the most interesting phenomenon of the last 10 years has been the decline in importance of the mainstream of composition. There has always been a mainstream. Until the 20th century, there was only the mainstream, but the new century saw a splintering of styles which led to alternative routes. But the mainstream persisted. We should remember that Strauss’ Four Last Songs were written after Boulez had completed his Second Piano Sonata. Vaughan Williams’ 9th Symphony was completed the same year Penderecki composed Emanations for Two String Orchestras. While the avant garde raged around him Henze continued to write music that stemmed directly from the traditions of the mainstream.
The mainstream represents the continuity of history, not its interruption or discontinuation. These composers go forward one step at a time, with no interest in revolution and no interest in pandering to audiences. No one writes books about them, and they do not make good press. Reviewers say things like “it was fine” and “it was skilled” and “it didn’t really say anything new.” John Corigliano, in an interview, made what is quite possibly the most profound observation about the act of composition ever uttered: “I don’t care if it’s new; I just care if it’s new for me.” This is virtually the credo of the mainstream, which seeks to assimilate and develop, not eradicate or pander. Modernists write for smaller and smaller audiences, saying bluntly that most audiences are too stupid to understand their work. Oddly enough, faux pop composers think their audiences are stupid as well, writing down to them, assuming that what has been forcibly marketed to them is actually what they want. Audiences never used to be a problem for the mainstream composers– good composers write for themselves as listeners, meaning that a substantial measure of traditional audiences would be receptive.
But where is this music now? Yes, mainstream new works are performed from time to time, increasingly in “special” concerts by orchestras marketed directly to “new music” audiences. But compare the frequency of performances of important mainstream composers to the performances of music by the post-pop composers. A quick glance through the websites of the major orchestras and concert presenters world wide is very instructive.
The new modernism is also absent from these places. But modernism has always had a home in its specialized world. It is protected in academia, enshrined in the programming of dedicated ensembles. What used to be an aesthetic point of view has become a dogma. Specialized ensembles do not even look at music that does not fit their belief system. Quality and adherence to the canon have become synonymous. Indeed, true faith has become more important than quality.
We are left with programming by major ensembles and presenters that is less and less challenging and stimulating for average audiences. And as we expect less from audiences, they expect less from us. We are making them lazy and uninterested. At universities, we are now teaching courses on the Beatles side by side with courses on Brahms. Is there is as much to study in the Beatles as there is in Brahms?
We used to accept that experimental work would suggest possibilities for more mainstream work, which would in turn include, from time to time, music appropriate for pops concerts. Experimental work has all but disappeared from mainstream programming, seen by presenters as box office poison. Mainstream composition is not easily marketable in our consumerist society, especially not by marketing departments who do not understand or care about what they are marketing. Faux pop music is an easy sell for publishers, publicists, and marketers, because our society seems not to care anymore about the difference between what we really want and what we are told to want. There is no shortage of burned out and indifferent 50-year-olds, self-indulgent 40-year-olds, poorly educated 30-year-olds, and pliable 20-year-olds in the world. And they are not just the audiences, they are also the marketers, publicists, and publishers, who finally understand what they are selling.
Are audiences really not interested in new work that is not immediately accessible? Do we live in a unique moment in the history of music, when traditional expression has been replaced by the quick fix? Or is it yet another pattern, strengthened this time by the pressure of money and marketing? Composers from Mozart to Prokofiev made no secret of the fact that they had two audiences, the erudite who needed to be challenged, and the populist who needed immediate sensation. Has this changed? Is it the “end of time” for music, the beginning of a new pop-driven age, or has marketing simply become the new religion, telling people what to believe and what to want? Have composers betrayed their audiences because they have grown weary and lazy and self-indulgent, preferring tapping their toes to a back beat or hiding among like-minded colleagues to getting down to the hard work of composition? Is musical progress still possible, or even desirable? Is it possible to recapture traditional audiences without stratagem, with simple quality of work?
It is all too easy to bury our heads in the sand. Some composers reading this will say “I’m doing fine, I’m getting performances of my music.” Some listeners will say “I just plain don’t like that new music stuff, and I’m glad I can get some pop-ish music in the stodgy symphony concert hall”, and to this, some composers will say “See, I’m dong the right thing.” Some composers will say “I am fighting the good fight, forging new paths.” Many will say “Does it matter? Shouldn’t we just go on and see what happens?” Some composers will say “I don’t care about this, I just do my work.” Many, many listeners will say “I don’t care about any of this new music stuff, I want to hear Beethoven.”
Arts serves mankind. How do we serve the art? Or does that matter?