Will the next Mozart please stand up?

Much time is wasted discussing what's wrong with classical music. These complaints cover many aspects of the classical music culture, from concert rituals, to education and public advocacy, to style and content. There are plenty of wonderful ideas and innovations, and lots of smart, dedicated people intent upon affecting positive change and facilitating the further evolution of classical music. To my thinking many of the ideas out there are trivial changes and mostly meaningless, but there are points to be made.

But on the other hand, then there are people who argue what Gary Panetta, of the Peoria Journal Star, argues. He moves right past issues of availability, education, and a dated concert ritual and goes straight to blaming the most obvious party -- the composers.

Will the next Mozart please stand up?

Here’s a comment that will probably confirm me as Philistine in most people’s minds, but I’m going to make it anyway.

Well, a Philistine, generally speaking is someone that is said to despise high art and intellectualism. Probably not the best point of view to be coming from when commenting on contemporary music.

But you mentioned Mozart, so I'm totally with you -- what's your argument?

Classical music today just doesn’t need a new way of presenting music. It needs new composers and new music.

It'd probably be stupid of me to point out the obvious here, so I'm going to assume that you know that there already are new composers and new music. Perhaps the ones we have aren't to your liking?

Specifically, it needs composers who can write for symphony orchestras instead of chamber music groups or soloists.

And again, you're probably making a philosophical point, so I don't need to tell you that almost all those new composers compose new music for orchestras too. I guess they write bad music for orchestras, and what we need is good music. Great point, Gary!

Moreover, classical music needs composers who can write music for symphony orchestras that is accessible.

That's a funny word, "accessible". Seems to mean different things to different people.

But let's just use your definition for the time being -- what's accessible mean?

This means – gasp! – that composers need to think about their audiences and what their audiences would like to hear.

Exactly! Just like Mozart said: “I pay no attention whatever to anybody's praise or blame. I simply follow my own feelings.”

By audience, I don’t mean “people in general.”

Yeah, fuck "people in general".

I mean the likely audience for classical music – the PBS, NPR crowd, that slice of the overall population that is open to the idea of hearing a symphony orchestra.

Precisely (although, just for clarification, when you say "the PBS, NPR crowd", you're talking about people like you, right?). "People in general" are too stupid and unwilling to try new things to be considered.

Classical music would need an even newer, more accessible breed of composer to speak to them, and that does sound like a lot of work. Nope, I'm with you, Gary. Stick to the basics -- new music.

But I guess I'm confused by what you mean by "new composers and new music". For example, I just heard a Symphony perform On the Transmigration of Souls by John Adams. The program notes said it was about September 11th, which I'm pretty sure means this piece is probably new. I mean it can't be more than 9 years old, can it? And let me tell you, it was great. The way he captured the sounds of New York, and his use of texts taken from missing person signs, and the dynamic music were all so incredibly powerful.

This niche audience should be excited whenever a new piece of music is published and be clamoring for public radio stations and for local symphony orchestras to play it.

When was this ever the situation?

You do realize that you're trading one niche audience for another. I mean you've sold me, Gary, but it's possible that someone (not me, mind you) might say that these non-existent new composers are actually writing music that they "clamor" for, even if you don't.

Remember, not me. You're totally right about new music not being new enough.

But these are radical concepts you're peddling here. I think you're basically saying that composers should stop writing music for themselves and start writing music for you. And, I listen to NPR also...so, I guess me, too!

This niche audience, however, is never excited because composers don’t think about this audience when they write.

I'm totally with you. I know composers and they are self-absorbed dickholes. Good call.

And oh, just for the files, how did you come by this knowledge again? I assume you having polling data to support your thesis, right?

They don’t think about the kind of harmonic language this audience is accustomed to hearing.

Wait a minute. I thought you said we need new music by new composers?

Gary, you and I are totally buddies here, but I think "language this audience is accustomed to hearing" could be misinterpreted. I think some people might think that you are referencing older music. Like the music of 200 years ago? I'm not a history expert, but that strikes me as decidedly not new. Fuck me, I'm confused.

They don’t realize that people still like to hear melodies – and that writing a good melody takes more than training. It’s something of a gift.

So right. Melodies are hard, and modern composers are just such quitters. I mean, how else can you explain the music of Steve Reich?

He must write all this music for percussion (really the lesser of all instruments -- banging doesn't equal playing) and all that minimalist stuff because he can't write a good melody. It's sad really. A failed composer who just persists upon writing more and more music under the mistaken belief that anybody likes it.

Face it, Steve. They don't! The people (not the "people in general", but the "PBS, NPR" people) like melodies, and therefore hate your music. And I'm looking your direction too John Adams.

I recently heard a symphony play On the Transmigration of Souls?! What the fuck was that? Street noises? Sound effects? Random texts? And for a piece about September 11th, not one super sad melody?

Composition lesson #1, my friend: minor key equals sad. How about you rewrite that pile of shit in g minor? And while you're at it, there are far too many letters in the word "transmigration". Titles should not contain words that I need to look up.

But I digress. Gary has the ball...drive it to the hole!

I’m not talking about dumbing music down.

Of course not. The "PBS, NPR crowd" aren't dumb, they just hate learning anything new.

I’m talking about marrying a sense of what’s popular and accessible with true musical sophistication and creating something that appeals to lay people while giving those more musically sophisticated something to appreciate.

Exactly. A more perfect utopia I couldn't imagine.

But for you non-NPR/PBS readers out there, this probably rather confusing. Let me translate some of the this for you.

"Popular" means what was popular 150 years ago.

"Accessible" means not requiring any effort or new knowledge from the audience. (I mean, all orchestra audiences were formed in full with just the right amount musical knowledge at birth. Any excess knowledge really is crime against humanity.)

"True musical sophistication" means there are good melodies. Hopefully melodies that can be whistled pompously around less worldly, ignorant workmates on the way to the office radio to change the station from easy listening to Fresh Air.

If composers want to be heard, they have no other choice.

So don't be like Mozart and make sure you pay attention to our whims. And certainly don't write what you feel.

You can only be so experimental when writing for symphony orchestra concerts, which are costly to mount, depend on a full or near full hall, and which frankly ask a great deal from the average person in terms of time and money.

Another great point, Gary. Which makes me wonder...why do we want this new music by new composers again? I mean, they're not going to write anything better than a Beethoven symphony, plus I love hearing Beethoven live.

Specialist music attracts only a specialist audience.

i.e. people who don't deserve orchestra music.

If composers want someone other than fellow academics listening, they need to change.

Or else.


Please forgive me now while I step onto my soapbox and editorialize on this subject for a moment.

Not to put too blunt a point on it, but Gary Panetta is what's wrong with classical music, not the composers writing this inaccessible music. What he is advocating for is not having to learn anything new. Gary Panetta has been challenged by music that he doesn't understand, and therefore doesn't like. And rather than admit his ignorance, he claims a position of self-righteousness -- composers have lost their way and should adjust their music to people like him.

Mr. Panetta will undoubtedly find many that agree with him, but thus is the reality of all stupid ideas (case in the point, the Republican party). I don't want to be too dismissive, but Mr. Panetta is a moron. His parents were probably morons, and he wants you to be a moron too. Because, if he doesn't get it, then no one who is worth caring about should get it either.

Now, don't get me wrong, there's nothing wrong with being a moron. Some of my best friends are morons...but I don't let them pick the movie, either. And not all morons are as easy to point out as say, Ms. Teen South Carolina, Heidi Montag, or Mitch McConnell. Nope, some even went to college, got fancy degrees and end up in places of power and influence, but that doesn't change the fact that they're morons. And they're not difficult to identify, because the hallmark of the moron is the advocacy, defense, or general malaise around not knowing.

Classical music has always required a certain level of sophistication from listeners. It has always been an intellectual exercise. It takes incredible skill and years of practice and experience to compose a piece of "true musical sophistication". And, as I'm sure Mr. Panetta would admit (and already basically concedes when he excludes "people in general" from his argument), that it takes a certain amount of knowledge and understanding to fully appreciate what a composer like Beethoven or Mozart is doing in their music. Granted, it's not an entirely intellectual exercise as a listener, but it's an important element that makes it distinct from listening to other types of music.

Now, what Mr. Panetta is essentially arguing is that the music he and his NPR/PBS brethren like contains the perfect blend of complexity and pretty stuff, like melodies. And since it's mostly music from 100+ years ago, he and everyone he knows grew up on this music and probably grew to appreciate it from an early age, which is when you're already forced to learn all sorts of new stuff, so it doesn't hurt as much. But now he's an adult, and he'll be damned if he learns anything else. The music of Mozart and Brahms is the best music Mr. Panetta knows, so if there must be new music, then if should reflect that great music of the past.

However, Mr. Panetta, as previously asserted, is a moron. He doesn't know what he's talking about. His argument is stupid and, if his first sentence is any indication, he knows it too. First of all, there is no perfect music. Classical music is in constant evolution. Each composer builds upon the legacy of the composers that come before them, incorporating the sensibilities of their culture, the technological advances of the era, and the greater wealth of music that had preceded them. And the problem is, Mr. Panetta, that for each new generation of composer there is more history and innovation packed into their compositions. Beethoven's music was keenly aware of Mozart, Bach, Haydn, Handel and a handful of others. Brahms also knew that music, plus the harmonic advancements of Schumann and Chopin, the nationalism of Dvorak and Smetana, the massive, bloated orchestrations of Berlioz and Wagner, not to mention the virtuosic vomitous volumes of Liszt and Paganini.

As a natural by-product of the modern age of classical music, there is a greater amount of knowledge necessary to understand Brahms than Beethoven. And the same is true of Mahler and Stravinsky and even Copland. That doesn't make any of this music better, nor does it make more complicated. Even as "accessible" as Copland's populist music of the early 1940s is, this music requires quite a bit of sophistication to fully understand.

But if your ultimate point, Mr. Panetta, is not about understanding and appreciating classical music for it's emotive powers, technical prowess and architectural beauty, but simply to admire it for it's pretty sounds and singable tunes, well then you have no point. That music is already out there for you. There is already an entire genre (an industry really) of music that is dedicated to thinking "about their audiences and what their audiences would like to hear." They already write their music in a "harmonic language this audience is accustomed to hearing." And they certainly have tried to "marr[y] a sense of what’s popular and accessible." It's called pop music. Perhaps you've heard of it. And for you ivory tower sorts, "pop" is short for "popular", and it is music designed for the sole purpose of being popular -- so the opposite of classical music. You'll love it, because I promise you, that from here till the end of time you'll never have to learn anything new to understand this music.

What makes classical music different is that it isn't meant for everyone. This isn't true in an elitist sense that it trying to keep anyone out, but by virtue of the level of sophistication and required knowledge base it will naturally appeal to a smaller segment of the population (I call them "readers"). And the thing is, that despite you not knowing this, classical music is in constant motion, even during the time of your favorite composers. There will always be music that pushes the boundaries, and music that rehashes the styles of earlier eras. Just look harder, Mr. Panetta, because it isn't difficult to find composers who want to be Brahms (check with any unemployed film scorer, or virtually any sophomore composition class).

But if you really want to talk about what's wrong with classical music, it's morons like you who think it's a static entity. That it was perfect when Beethoven and Brahms roamed the Bavarian countryside. Composers have always been ahead of audiences, it's the nature of all creative fields. But somewhere along the line it became acceptable for audiences to elevate themselves to the center of the classical music universe and decree that anything they don't understand is stupid and wrong. Well, you're not the center of this universe, and frankly as Milton Babbitt says, and I think I speak for most composers here, we doesn't care if you listen.


300 SDL said...

Well said, and you cite excellent examples by John Adams and Steve Reich. There is nothing worse than having to deal with pretentious, self absorbed people like Gary who like to pretend they are subject matter experts.

jason said...

Gary Panetta is exhibit A for my arch-conservative friends who dog me for being an NPR/PBS-type myself. Looking at him I'm forced to admit that there are just as many close-minded morons looking out for their own comfort and mistrustful of change on my side of the political spectrum (with the added insult that many of those same people are patting themselves on the back for their broad compassion and wide-ranging cultural interests--at least I'm conflicted about my middle-of-the-road liberal values *sigh*).

Empiricus said...

I'll take this a different direction and defend poor Gary.

See, I tend to think that past generations' institutionalization, or canonization, of baroque, classical, and romantic composers' music beautifully serves, today, to ascribe a particular monetary, or market, value proportionate to their bygone perceived artistic worth. In other words, the argument for Beethoven piece X's worth is ultimately stronger than an argument for new music, whose market value is unobtainable without the benefit of reflective time (at least in the same sense as Beethoven, for example). This means that, in a capitalist environment, the dividends are more stable and trustworthy for Beethoven. Thus, there is no incentive to push the boundaries, to explore the new. What's left, is merely the ethical incentive, which, as Gary points out, is not a practical endeavor, at least 'as is'; new music, in his eyes, needs to compete on the same level as the Beethoven. Unfortunately, this means new music requires a known base of comparison, i.e., a common practice, whether it consists of melodies or triads. So, in a sense he's right!

But, then again, I don't think this is what he's trying to say. And you rightly called him out for his ignorance.

Also, the word verification: GARYME.

Gustav said...

Excellent points, E. I think it's hard to argue with everything you're saying about the market value of established commodities like Beethoven. Beethoven is indeed king at the symphony box office, and rightly so. And if Gary wanted to make the point that orchestra should only focus on filling houses and ignore more artistic endeavors, then nothing but orchestral staples is the way the go. And if that's his point, the fiduciary responsibilites of orchestras, then it seems odd that he'd even make this plea for new orchestral music. But as you point out, E, he doesn't really seem to be making a financial argument.

But again, I think it's important to point out that there are already tons of working composers who very much buy into this idea of audience friendly music (even though I don't buy his premise that even avant garde composers don't think of their audiences). For some it's a calcuated move, and for others it is representative of the true voice.

And this isn't new issue. Barber, for example, held ardently to romanticism even into the 1960s. Copland rethought his modernist training in favor of populism (and then became a dodecaphonist).

Of working composers Philip Glass has international recognition, as does John Adams and Steve Reich. Although a film scorer, John Williams has almost singlehandedly introduced a new generation to classical music through his extrodinarily popular melodies. I could whistle half a dozen melodies from John Corigliano off the top of my head. My point being that the very thing Gary is asking for already exists.

And just beyond these most famous of composers lies a sea of new tonalists like Chris Theofanidis, Jennifer Higdon, Kevin Puts, Osvaldo Golijov and dozens more. All Gary has to do to find classical music that harkens back to traditional harmonic languages (at least as far as scales and triadic harmony are concerned) is look a little harder.

But the reason I think he doesn't understand this has everything to do with being unwilling to learn and expand his very narrow vision of what constitutes music.

Gustav said...

@ Jason - Why do your conservative friends dog on you for listening to NPR/PBS? Are they so jaded by Fox News that they don't even know what real journalism looks like any more? I know Jim Lehrer is a liberal in his heart of hearts, but could there be a newscaster more painfully "fair and balanced"?

AnthonyS said...

Wow, great post. I think you are spot-on with the "not knowing" issue-- and it works on several levels. As you point out, the kind of music that he says he wants is already out there, he just hasn't invested the time to find it. It's so much easier to bitch about apparent gaps in the literature than to actually go to a library (eek!) or buy some CDs or otherwise spend five minutes on lastfm and listen to some new music.

Intellectual laziness sucks.

RichardMitnick said...

The liveliest scene for New Music available now to ALL, is Q2, the 24/7 eclectic (read "new")music stream at http://www/wqxr.org/q2.

And, the New Music scene in New York City is just bursting with creativity.

Best to leave the dead wood behind for the ants.

RichardMitnick said...

I forgot, I got this link from The Innova Facebook page, and I was not considerate to remind that Innova has some of the most interesting new artists anywhere. The work can be heard on Innova's five Live365 streams and generally purchased on CD or .mp3.

And, thank you Philip!!

Anonymous said...

Well, let's look at Hip Hop. Apparently, this type of music is quite popular. However, I don't understand it. Being a Caucasian suburbanite, I think that Hip Hop artists need to write music for people like me so I can understand it and be popular. This includes merry chord progressions and melodies, and subject matter that is relevant to me (who wants to talk about "Superman-ing hos?" Can't we just talk about lawn mowers?).

If you haven't figured out yet that I agree with you, well I do. We need to understand that implications and consequences of society that influences music, along with music's natural evolution (whether or not that includes 12-tone method is in the eye of the beholder). Mr. Panetta can enjoy his music of the past, but I will stick to my music of the future.