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?