Allan Kozinn’s NY Times article on performers and new music is a few days old now, but it was Christmas, then New Year, then I got older, so I’ve only just seen it and read it. While Kozinn’s basic thesis (it would be awesome if more performers engaged with new music) is pretty bullet-proof, there’s a lot here that makes me really squeamish. Kyle Gann calls the article ‘pitch perfect’, but I just can’t agree. In fact, I have two pretty substantial problems with it.
On the surface [performers of new music] seem to be advocates for these works, but actually their main job is to play an endless stream of untested scores, with an ear open for the keepers.
First of all, I don’t think conceptualising new music performance as a search for new masterpieces is a particularly accurate reflection of why a lot of performers play what they play. Nor do I think it is an especially helpful model for the practice of any sort of contemporary art. Art viewed in the time of its creation is profoundly different in quality from art viewed from a historical distance. The immense efforts of the HIP movement to try to recreate the historical as though it were contemporary tell us that if nothing else. This goes further than attempting to evaluate a work within an appropriate aesthetic context; the very function of the work changes as it moves from the contemporary to the historical.
Contemporary music – worthwhile contemporary art of any sort – sets out to do more than simply add to the parade of beautiful objects that already exist. It aims to change the world into which it erupts. Not all new music achieves this, of course, but in small way, a very large amount of it does. Some of that world-shattering music isn’t for the future (or futures): the world it shattered no longer exists, and it may even have had a hand in that. But it is for that eruption into the now, careless of the future, that new music is written and performed.
This brings me to my second concern with Kozinn’s article, and this one in particular had me squirming.
It is not enough for a work to be ingenious or compelling enough to engage the musician or ensemble members who learn it. Even if performers eventually look critically at the work, they have an investment in it at first. They may have chosen the composer and had a hand in raising the commissioning fees and, at the very least, have devoted hours to practicing it. They are bound, at least for a while, to regard it as great music worthy of everything they have put into it.
Where – other than as a name in a rolodex – is the composer in all this? Kozinn’s article is built – perhaps unwittingly – on that old canard of the ivory-towered composer, here manifest through a performer who is obliged, through investments of of their own time, money and social capital, to put some effort into that composer’s work. Isn’t there a chance – just the tiniest one – that some performers of contemporary music actually enjoy participating in the living flow of a contemporary culture of the sort I’ve described? And isn’t there some chance too that they may actually know some of the composers whose work they perform. And even if they don’t know them personally, that they might simply respect the work of a fellow artist and want to share in its creation?
Isn’t it human acts like these of sharing, collaboration, respect and love that really make the new music world go around, not speculative bets on the masterpiece futures market? And wouldn’t it be better if we talked about them instead?