Masterpiece futures

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?

8 thoughts on “Masterpiece futures

  1. I had a similarly uncomfortable reaction to the story after reading Gann’s response. In fact, I think the idea of new music is antithetical to the idea of building the art music canon. Additionally, there’s a huge gap missing from the article where he addresses the fact that lots of performers of the canon will play pieces they aren’t in love with either.

    1. “I think the idea of new music is antithetical to the idea of building the art music canon”

      Although some works of new music will inevitably be added to the art music canon over time. But I agree that that has very little to do with composers or performers, and much more to do with the tastemakers of today and the future.

      “Additionally, there’s a huge gap missing from the article where he addresses the fact that lots of performers of the canon will play pieces they aren’t in love with either.”

      Nor, indeed, is all of what they play ‘masterpiece quality’.

  2. “[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.”
    Ironically, the very beauty and thoughtfulness of the last two sentences works to subvert their message – for they are “a keeper”.
    There are moments and architectures in artistic expression that not only capture a thought or a situation well enough for now, but actually continue to be enticing for future listeners and readers – whether it is because they are so basic that everyone can feel at home with them (the cynic’s view) or whether they are so rich that they offer virtually endless varieties of enjoyment.
    I understand the queasiness associated with working “sub specie aeternitatis” (in the face of eternity) but just because such a criterion is uncomfortable for us new music lovers it is not necessarily inadequate. We apply all kinds of criteria to our listening experiences – and, all things considered, I prefer ‘looking for the keepers’ to looking for the coolest, the ‘most advanced’ or the ‘most innovative’. To me, taking a long perspective also is a kind of anti-consumerist statement…

  3. As much as I hate to do so, I agree with Kyle Gann’s take on this. To me, it appears that you’re reading too much into the phrases that you’re quoting. When Kozinn says “a keeper”, he isn’t necessarily referring to a masterpiece for the ages but just something that people like. That is, something that can be enjoyed right now. He’s coupling “a keeper” with the reaction of the audience, the one that happens to be alive and listening today.

    I don’t get the reference to performers never liking the music they play either. Taken out of context, maybe some statements seem to be saying that but clearly that’s not what’s really being said. The opening quote states that most of the music they play “is not great”, which by itself confirms your queasiness, but also says “it is very good” and that it needs to be heard because “this is music being composed now”. It sounds like they’re advocating for that eruption that you speak of.

  4. @Sandeep – That’s very kind of you, but I think the point works just as well in my favour: those sentences weren’t written with the future in mind, but with the hope that they might have some small effect in the present (and I’m delighted that they seem to have done!)

    @Josh – Fair enough – you’re reading Kozinn more sympathetically than me – although I’m not sure I buy your reading of ‘a keeper’ when Kozinn also talks of ‘the great masterpieces of the canon’, etc.

  5. I think your thoughts on Kozinn are quite nuanced and quite accurate. (I generally think Kozinn does a great job championing new music, though.)

    Anecdote: someone recently described Steve Reich’s Double Sextet as a “doubling back” on an older Reichian aesthetic. I think I’d agree, at least on the surface (I’m not terribly familiar with it, so…). Anyway, the idea of doubling back reminded me of a quote in Taruskin’s Oxford History: “[…] Schoenberg (like Cage) purported to liberate sounds, Reich (like a sixties agitator) was out to liberate people” (p.372). If indeed Reich was returning to a previous aesthetic, then either Taruskin’s aggrandizement is premature, or he’s discounting the possibility that a once great liberator can become powerfully entrenched in a more conservative establishment.

    Similar, I think…

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