The following excerpts a recent piece by Pierre Ruhe of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. He throws his voice into the surging ocean of people wondering why composers just won’t write stuff they like! How dare they express themselves! Surely Beethoven’s early reviews were all stellar. Right?"His great qualities are often alloyed by a morbid desire for novelty, by extravagance, and by a disdain of rule. The effect his writings have had on the art must, I fear, be considered as injurous... as much harshness, as much extravegance, as much obscurity, with little or none of the beauty or grandeur. Thus music is no longer intended to soothe, to delight.. it is absorbed into one principle-- to astonish"
--Quarterly Musical Magazine, London, 1827 (re: Beethoven) [thanks to reader AnthonyS]
Contemporary classical music is at a crossroads. The composer-audience relationship has been sour for decades, but both sides are starting to ask the same question.
What, sir, is that question? No? Fine…
Composers are at their best when they let music do the talking.
Shut up, composers! What the hell do you know about, um, your…music? We’re the audience, dammit!
Still, the urge to put their inspirations and aspirations into words is supposed to help the listeners.
Help the listeners…to…understand the music? Get a mortgage? Do their taxes? Or: Understand their music!?!
More likely, though, it weakens whatever artistic statements they are trying to make.
Yes. Verbal explanations of the fine arts usually serve to further obfuscate the meaning of the audience. Clearly. Duh.
This dilemma was on view again recently at Spivey Hall.
The dilemma…was on…view?
The fifth annual “Composers Now” concert in mid-March covered works by four prominent Atlantans: Mark Gresham, Jason Freeman, Chris Arrell and Nickitas Demos.
I don’t know any of these people, or their work, but I already prefer them to your review.
The telling moment came when Arrell, the show's organizer and a professor at Clayton State University, led a discussion with his colleagues. His simple question - about how the composer thinks of an audience when writing music - was met with awkward silence, then nervous chuckles.
Oh, those dismissive artsy types! They are so aloof. Clearly, no composer ever wrote what they felt they had to, contemporaries be damned. Surely, no. Definitely not Beethoven. Shostakovich. Wait. What?
Did this suggest these local creators share an I’m-too-cool-to-care attitude toward the recipients of their art?
Yes, yes it did. And it sucked. That is to say: I respectfully disagree.
When pressed, each composer had a properly respectful answer about the value of audiences.
Freeman, a professor at Georgia Tech, explained that he’s written online “wiki” style pieces, created anew with each Web visitor.
Someone else mentioned that he writes for the performers and lets them make the case to the listeners.
All seemed to agree that top priority, as Demos put it, remains, “I gotta be true to myself.”
This seems like a rational approach. Most of the viewers and critics thought Picasso was insane. Kandinsky? Forget about it. Now? Established masters. Schoenberg? Still a pariah. Music is too precious to leave to the composers!
I encountered something more distressing last month, as a panelist at a national composer’s conference, hosted by
I can’t wait.
When someone in the crowd asked, “Why don’t [living] composers get more attention from the media?” I rashly shot back, “Well, isn’t that the composers’ fault?”
You sure did, rashly!
It poked an open wound. Contemporary classical composers feel embattled, marginalized from the broader American culture. Their niche audience seems as small as ever.
As small…as ever? What? So, what’s the problem?
The simplest notion — if you want an audience to appreciate you, you’d better take steps towards pleasing that audience — is not, apparently, obvious.
Free-market capitalist music! Pandering to the intended audience! It’s called pop. Look it up.
It brings to mind an infamous axiom by Arnold Schoenberg (1874-1951), the dissonant master who remains the bogeyman of the average concert-goer. “If it’s art, it is not for all,” he pronounced, “and if it’s for all it is not art.”
That seems about right. Sure, everyone loves Mozart and Beethoven! Except the rural farmers who have no exposure. (Not to their discredit or fault, just making a point.) By your argument, composers should write music for whosomever comes to the concert. “Dammit, Schubert! Your music should sound more like Hank Williams, dadgummit!” How is that rational? Challenge the audience. Make them work and/or think. If you don’t want to work and/or think, go see, I dunno,
In recent decades, that’s been a mindset in the academic community, although that ice block is starting to thaw.
Nice metaphor. What?
But the lingering suspicion, voiced often by today’s composers, is that art that “panders” to an audience is cheap, anti-intellectual, tainted by commercialism or simply unfashionable.
By “panders”, I think you mean PANDERS.
Architects used to make this same argument. Our cities are choked with sterile buildings that don’t interact with life down on the street where people walk, or at least used to, before architects conspired to banish them from the designs.
In your construction, the architects banished the streets. Good work.
A WAY FORWARD?
Composers have a harder time of it than others. There’s no middleman in a painter’s art. A playwright’s words can be interpreted on stage or read as literature by everyone who’s literate. But music notation — the treble clefs and quarter notes and 12/8 meters on staff paper — is accessible only to trained musicians.
Want to understand? Try a community college course, they’re cheap! Really, expecting understanding sans any effort at all is lazy, lazy art appreciation.
When a composer fashions his sound for the performance specialists, he hopes they'll spend enough time to discover its recondite virtues. First-time listeners, which is to say everyone else at the concert, are likely to feel like an afterthought in the conversation.
See above snark. To quote Frank Zappa: “…go to the library and educate yourself, if you’ve got any guts.”
And any individual composer writes the music he or she feels inspired to write, of course.
I know, right? Why have you been writing all of this…
But when the larger trend, entrenched over many decades, positions composers to face each other more directly than their audiences, should we wonder why living composers don’t get more attention?
Yet unlike the performer-driven pop scene, composers remain at the core of classical music. They’re what biologists would call “primary producers” in an ecosystem: energy flows outward from them and into the larger classical community, for better and worse. Beethoven is always a bigger draw than the ensemble playing him; Schoenberg and his atonal brethren are said to be “box office poison.”