Double dutch

Just a little follow-up to my Bernard Holland post below. I appreciated reading Kyle’s nuanced response to the Holland review. But he himself links to this Justin Davidson piece on Carter from earlier in the year, which again raises some of the same issues. Kyle talks about the problem with Holland’s review as being a question of terminology: “Our critics need to find a rhetoric in which to discuss the issue that does not make atonality the fall guy”. Absolutely: but I think the problems go further than just terminology to more fundamental rhetorical tropes about what new music is, what it does, and what should be its relationship to its audience. The frankly careless way in which such tropes (dating back at least 60 years) are applied leaps out, I’m afraid, from Davidson’s opening paragraph:

What does it mean to be a great composer if nobody wants to hear your music? That question, which might have been asked of many avant-garde luminaries of the twentieth century, applies with particular force to Elliott Carter, who turned 99 in December and immediately plunged into a hectic centennial year. Juilliard has just wrapped up a weeklong festival of his music, and the Pacifica Quartet undertook the grueling musical pentathlon of performing all five of his string quartets at a single sitting. Carnegie Hall has appointed him to its Composer’s Chair and plans an assortment of tributes, culminating in a 100th-birthday concert featuring a new piano concerto played by Daniel Barenboim and conducted by James Levine.

If all these concerts are being put on by all these ensembles, can it really be true to say that nobody wants to hear Carter’s music? Yet the cliché of modernist music reception is that nobody wants to hear it, so you’ve still got to say it even when the explosion of listening and performance activity you’re writing about flies in the face of that cliché. It’s not so much the terms that Holland etc. use that bother me so much (even if they are in some cases extraordinarily misused), its the casual acquiescence to a single musico-historical narrative without any consideration of an alternative universe of values. And what is modern music doing if not trying to open our imaginations to the possibilities of such alternatives?

5 thoughts on “Double dutch

  1. I want to agree with you. I really do.

    But do you have evidence to the contrary? I haven’t looked at the numbers, but I suppose sell-outs for those Carter concerts would be a start at demonstrating that somebody does, in fact, want to hear his music.

    However, if I had to write for a national publication about a rigidly modernist composer like Carter, I would probably take the safe bet that most of my readers aren’t interested in his music.

    Philip Glass? Different story.

  2. Fair enough, I don’t have any numbers. But those concerts wouldn’t need to be sell-outs though to make my point: I’m still wary of the line that a composer who doesn’t fill a hall to the same extent as Glass does has, de facto, a negligible audience. The fact that the concerts Davidson lists are all taking (took) place is evidence of at least some interest in Carter isn’t it? (And it was the apparent contradiction in that opening para that jarred so much.)

    On your second point – yeah, I imagine it is probably a safe bet that most NY Mag readers aren’t interested in Carter. Actually, I think Davidson’s negative take is more thoughtful here than some, but if you’ve got to write on an unpopular composer, why not try to engage your interested reader in something thought-provoking, rather than reinforce the prejudices of those of your readers who weren’t interested in the first place? That’s what I’d like to see more of.

  3. Now, there I agree without reservation.

    And it’s not just music writers who reinforce stereotypes, it’s performers as well.

    Good luck finding a concert of ‘serious’ new music that isn’t a shoegazing snoozefest!

  4. I’m currently conducting an ethnography of new music ensembles and their communities. I think Tim is totally right. In my research, it seems that the “rhetoric of survival” (McClary 1989) is oriented, in part to reestablishing classical music as a power center for deciding what is and what is not “real” music. Clearly people are going to, to use this example, Carter’s concerts. I think that the new music genre, and classical music has experienced some sort of cultural normalization over the past sixty or so years.

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