reductionism

I’m sure there are at least a thousand holes to poke in what follows, but I’d much rather hear about them than let this post sit, unposted, with all the others until this issue has blown over. And that’s exactly what would happen if I didn’t press the publish button now, so here goes.

A recent post over at NewMusicBox has caused some stir. The article and particularly the comments stir up at least four layers of polarization that I’ve found to be problematic for some years now, and no doubt were around long before I was alert to them.

reductionism vs exploration, or, the canon vs what’s actually happening now
The musicologist’s request for “up to three scores that would adequately represent the musical innovations of the past 10-15 years” seems, from a musicologist’s point of view, like a suddenly generous show of interest. From a composer’s point of view, it could hardly be more discouraging. If three short pieces can on any level represent the last 15 years of innovation, we might as well all stop writing now and hope for that one flash of genius to hit before 2027. For what? So a bored freshman can see a page or two in an anthology and forget it the following week (unless it’s on the exam)? I recognize there are practical limitations. But then again, I always disliked textbooks, and I’m not at all sure they’re the way of the future.

America vs Europe
If it were simply a matter of personal taste that the composers in Rob Deemer’s list were all American, it might be seen as odd. But when that choice reflects a trend already encountered in dozens of other circumstances, reactions range from anger to discouragement. What’s the cause of this battle in our little new music universe? Isolationism? Nationalism? Localism? A lack of interest in the work being done outside of our own immediate social/professional network? All of these things are possible, in some complex combination. But it cannot be a lack of access to information. Live experience, interaction, and reflection, yes. But there is plenty of material anyone with an interest can find online on any of the composers in, for example, Alex Mincek’s list in the comments. Just to complicate things further, there is quite a list that I could rattle off of American composers who are only performed in humble operations in their own country, but are featured on a fairly grand scale in European festivals. Which brings us to…

experimental vs traditional/non-experimental
Clearly my interests in this blog are in experimental music, but it’s not the only kind of music I write, and people are generally capable of respecting more than one type of thing. It’s the tendency towards dismissiveness that I find most troubling, especially when I engage in it myself. But the single most prevalent reason for it is not, so far as I can tell, some contemporary form of tribalism, but overstimulation. How much attention do we have to give in a day, and how does that compare to the demands for it? And then how do the real world demands of earning money and keeping ourselves more or less put together fit in with the somewhat abstracted ideal of knowing what our colleagues are up to?

young vs old, women vs men…
“Thanks for including women in your lists,” wrote one commenter. I like to think that this is becoming an old issue. I’d be hard pressed to exclude women from any list of interesting, living composers, however short. Ultimately it’s about the quality of the work, and it can be accepted or rejected on its own merits. The same commenter later said, “the slant towards younger composers, also makes one pause.” What does it matter, if the work is good? Can we go back to the impossibility of the premise? Older composers need to be heard, and so do younger ones. Women and men. Quality should be the primary issue, and it’s a subjective one.

One more question among the many, in case anyone wants to chime in. Where does the consumer come in to play? I’m not thinking about money, but about opportunities for people who are not already educated as composers or new music performers to find the work that interests them. Here I’m thinking of Ian Pace‘s “devil’s advocate” comment on Twitter on “the inability of others to make the most radical developments apparent to a wider public.” Is anyone trying to answer this question? The echo chamber can’t be our only venue.

So to sum up, here’s what I think we need more of:
listening, writing, reflection, travel, research, communication

here’s what we need less of:
canonization, short-sightedness, self-interest, camps, complacency

Your responses are most welcome.


Comments

reductionism — 4 Comments

  1. Whats the ultimate goal of all this, an undergrad textbook for a survey class? I’m not sure if it’s worth the discussion because in that type of course the living composers, whoever they are, always fail. Students are implicitly taught that composers were important because of political and societal events, and now the best they can do is portray recent history. By the end of the class students lack a sense of empowerment, of thrill, or danger in music. They don’t understand the physiological issues that happen in performance, from the perspective of all those involved. All in all, its passive when it should be anything but. Without getting into the specific motivations for why this textbook is being written, the general purpose of them is to edify.
    The problem is that this textbook won’t address (I’m sure) the particular issues that people have with music these days, and how they listen, and how one’s surroundings shape the way they come to interact with sound, in all its forms, and through all its sources.
    So yeah, the conversation has taken a turn towards picking the right 21st century composers. I get it. And we can take off and never land w/such a subject. I’ve got my own list. But I wouldn’t wish a textbook like this on any of them. I mean, seriously! Look at this thing! http://www.amazon.com/A-History-Music-Western-Culture/dp/0130143200

    • Hi David,
      From an earlier column, it looks like the selection is for an anthology. I misspoke, strictly speaking, when I referred to textbooks. But I think your points still hold.
      I wonder if there’s all this fuss, in some part, because the stakes feel higher than usual. There’s a prospect that these selections will be not only published, but purchased and studied by a relatively large pool of students.
      I think this whole ‘kerfuffle’, as one person called it, points to the need for a better and more extensive set of bridges between new music specialists and non-specialists (musicians or not). This feels like one of the very few, but there are many ways to set about this kind of work, and anyone can try. I would like to think that this blog could be part of that network, but I think it’s still mostly internal to an already-existent community.

  2. Thanks Jennie. A nicely measured response amongst some of the hyperbole and spit that has been flying around. And although I broadly agree with the sentiment of some of the hyperbolic spitters, it’s also good to step back and take a breath.

    I think you are right that the questions behind this post are more important than the answers. Deemer’s column from a year ago, in which he quotes a colleague on the impossibility of teaching contemporary music, was particularly depressing. The course I’ve just taught (mostly written by a colleague, and not me, I should add) was fantastically up to date, including as much music post-2000 as pre-. I would disagree anecdotally with David, too, that living composers are disadvantaged in a course like this: many of my students (first-year undergrads) loved encountering Zorn, Ablinger, Lim and LM Young for the first time. I know of one at least who is rethinking her compositional work having been introduced to Zorn’s Cobra.

    With regard to your lists of needs and don’t-needs: I agree that we need more of the first. However, people being what we are we often need elements of the second to go and seek things out. This particular anthology appears to be hobbled by its editorial restrictions, but I don’t completely think that making neat packages like this is a bad way to induce people to start exploring further.

    That said, the items that are included have to excite people …

    • Thanks Tim,

      It’s encouraging to hear that your students have been responding so well to recent work. And it doesn’t surprise me, when it’s selected and taught with enthusiasm and a from a broad knowledge base. I think David and I were both thinking of the traditional music history survey class here in the states, that usually runs over one year and allegedly covers the entirety of music history. I’d assume that’s the target for this sort of anthology.

      And I wouldn’t say that we could do without anything on my second list, possibly excepting short-sightedness and complacency. It’s hard to imagine how the idea of a canon is shifting now that information travels so much more freely, and there is so much of it. I’d say we need more and better curation, which is part of what you’ve been doing on The Rambler and is great. It’s the leap from the whole ocean of activity to a few pages in a book that makes me uncomfortable, especially because there are so very few people writing about new music, apart from composers writing about their own work. We need more genuine dialogue, not just about what’s wrong with the current state of things, but about specific work and trends. I would love to see an anthology that emerged from such a dialogue, but the internet seems to be a better vehicle for it than print.

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