Us v Them, still

A curious article on music in the New York Sun, which touches on something I’ve been reading/thinking about quite a bit recently. Referring to a recent panel discussion between Aaron Jay Kernis, Joan Tower, Karel Husa and John Corigliano held at the Bruno Walter Auditorium:

Ms. Tower discussed the benefits of composing in America, concluding she “would die in Europe.” She described the European system of cliques and Europe’s rigid requirements of conformity — elements, she pointed out, that formerly existed on this side of the pond.

Ms. Tower, however, may be a bit too close to the subject to realize that she too is part of a rather closed society. In America, it is virtually impossible for someone who is not a part of the academic community to have his or her works taken seriously.

Two brief observations to make here:

  1. Could Tower please point to some of ‘Europe’s rigid requirements of conformity’ (a prize to anyone who knows what she’s referring to – mention of a 55 year-old piano duet by the young Boulez doesn’t win you the prize)
  2. Apart from Babbitt, how many major American composers are/were totally embedded in the academic community? Cage? Reich? Feldman? Glass? Young? Wolff? Riley? Partch? Nancarrow? Adams? Lucier? … (the list goes on). (Writing this list it did occur that someone like Tenney perhaps might have been considered part of the academic community, but such thoughts do such a disservice to his music as to only further highlight the weakness of the original argument.)

Björn Heile’s excellent article ‘Darmstadt as Other: British and American Responses to Musical Modernism’ (twentieth century music, i/2 (2004), 161-78) is essential reading here.


4 thoughts on “Us v Them, still

  1. You’re spot on, and I find it hilarious that this comment is being made at a panel including Aaron Jay Kernis (Yale), Joan Tower (Bard), Karel Husa (Cornell), and John Corigliano (Julliard).

    As an American who has lived and worked on both sides of the pond, I continue to be shocked by the total lack of understanding of the material conditions of life as a freelance composer on either continent, and especially the lack of understanding on the part of those US academic composers who are supposedly preparing young composers for careers.

    In my experience, nowhere does a clique-ishness function more than in the network of prize-giving, orchestral residencies, and academic positions that these four composers belong to, and from which all of the experimentalists you have named (Adams perhaps excepted) and their students are systematically excluded.

  2. I’m really confused about what Corigliano says:

    “Mr. Corigliano recalled encountering a student in Beijing who is writing her thesis on his Symphony No. 2, a work neither published nor commercially recorded.”

    I own a commercial recording of the piece (Helsinki PO/Storgards on Ondine) and there is another one available on Chandon (I Musici di Montreal/Turovsky). The score’s also readily available at, among other places, for around $50. Perhaps he was misquoted and meant his *THIRD* symphony, “Circus Maximus”, which he wrote for wind ensemble and for which I could easily obtain both a score and recording. I also wonder exactly what he means by “pirated”, since the work has been broadcast over the radio and the student could have simply recorded it that way. He also clearly has no idea what copyright laws are, as it’s common knowledge that a person can make one copy of pretty much anything, including a musical score, if it’s for academic use, which is clearly the case in the poor student from Beijing’s case. If I were him/her, I’d change my subject immediately to a composer who’s more accommodating…

  3. I am slightly confused. When you say you could easily obtain a score and recording of “Circus Maximus.” As far as I know scores have been distributed on a limited basis, or at least that is what I was told when I paid $150 for mine. However I have not been able to find an available recording of the work. I have heard that it would be released in SACD and now in DVD. I am in need of this recording. Any information to its whereabouts would be greatly appreciated.

    Thanks – Chris

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