Just a thought

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.

One thought on “Just a thought

  1. Amusing. I once heard Stucky give an emphatically reactionary and coded-racist pre-concert talk in which he described the Lutoslawski Fourth as “monocultural” (as distinct from multi-) and as pure music with no extramusical elements (the obvious insinuation being that “extramusical” equals, you know, that dreaded “multi-” stuff).
    In the concert itself, Esa-Pekka Salonen described the opening (trumpet solo over aleatoric string masses) as a metaphor for the authority figure — “in this case, probably the General Secretary of the Polish Communist Party” — and society; so much for “pure music”. Oh, and the instrumentation includes bongos.
    When Stucky won the Pulitzer, I listened to a movement of whatever it was; my impression was of something floating between Ravel and Dutilleux that might have been creditable conservative work 50 years previously.

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