Anthony Tommasini’s Dogma No More article has been picking up a lot of social media fluff (and some considered analysis too) today. Ultimately, it’s a pretty frustrating read, full of contradictions and weird value judgements. The repeated deferral to the uneven-as-hell Pulitzer Prize as a measure of a composer’s long-term merit is only the most baffling of these. (Part of the ongoing substitution of PR for criticism.)
After seeing a concert by the young Ensemble ACJW that is excitingly eclectic (Babbitt! Davidovsky! Biber!!!), Tommasini wonders whether there is a musical future for the baby boomer ‘notes and rhythms’ composers who didn’t appear in Ensemble ACJW’s show. Composers like Stephen Hartke, John Harbison, Steven Stucky, Joan Tower, Christopher Rouse, Melinda Wagner and Sebastian Currier.
But the language Tommasini himself uses to describe those composers surely answers his own question: he treads carefully around them, but he still can’t avoid phrases like ‘the middle ground’, ‘mainstream’ and ‘middlebrow’. Even as Tommasini advocates, this sounds like music that’s neither here nor there; skilled, regularly performed and Pulitzer-winning, maybe, but none of those adjectives fire the blood.
Put simply: groups like Ensemble AJCW want to play music that is ‘awesome, bizarre, brilliant’. Maybe they simply don’t find any of that in Harbison’s ‘notes and rhythms’. Maybe there is something to be said for those composers who did, and do, strike out on adventurous and difficult paths.
Just a thought.