Guest blog: I'm not dead yet!
Today's blog comes from a friend, Helsinki-based, UMass-educated Canadian composer Matthew Whittall (1975-not yet). Here's a recent review of some of Matt's music, which you'll soon be hearing on WFCR. The following opinions are Matt's alone, and do not necessarily represent the opinions of NEPR, NPR, the CBC, or me — though I have to say, I don't disagree with a single word. —John Montanari, New England Public Radio
In the past few months, John and I have been going back and forth via Facebook on the topic of new music. One blog post of his in particular jumped out at me, about why it's better to be a living composer than a dead one, provoked some rather intense discussion, and John asked me here to write about the topic a bit from a composer's perspective. You see, while I generally agree that success during a composer's lifetime is a better than average predictor of how their music will fare after their death, I take a different view of how we're faring as a species in the current musical climate. But let me get to the point by way of a little story involving radio.
Years ago, while visiting my parents in Ottawa, I was listening to a CBC classical request show. The host, the wonderful Shelagh Rogers (since banished to the back of beyond in the name of making the CBC more "hip"), was reading e-mails from listeners, and one in particular made me look up. It began, "I prefer my composers well dead."
"Well, aren't you clever?" I thought. In one fell swoop, you managed to swear your undying allegiance to the canon of great composers and completely dismiss my livelihood and years of training. Yes, it's only a silly play on words from one individual, but it encapsulates the attitude of an entire subset of classical listeners, radical conservatives for whom no contemporary music will ever live up to the canon of great masterworks, most of them written by long-dead Germans and Austrians. So great is their admiration and fervor for the classics of the repertoire that all other music created by the human race throughout history must be compared to it, and found wanting. A close friend who works for a major festival came up with a great moniker for this sub-group: the Classical Taliban. (Provocative, to be sure, but let's go with it.)
Fear not, dear reader, this isn't one of those "Audiences suck!!!!!!!!!" rants. I'm on your side, believe me. Until I got to college, I had no idea people still composed classical music. (Shut up, I grew up in a very small town.) Perhaps luckily for me, my first encounter with a living composer was my harmony teacher at Vanier College, the late Robert Jones, a supremely open-minded composer of broad tastes, varied training and undogmatic, irreverent disposition. His music was so beautiful, so immediately engaging, and so stylistically diverse that I assumed, in the naïveté of my youth, that all new music must be equally wonderful and free. Then I got to university and came face to face with real New Music and all that goes with it. About that, I'll say only that I get it. New Music is a tough sell, even for some of us who write it.
So while I usually take the side of the audience in matters of taste, and while the plural of anecdote is not data, the extremist view taken by the conservative listener – that all the great music has been written and the new stuff just doesn't measure up – colors the discussion of new music and its place in the concert repertoire in many pernicious ways. And in the same way a classical performer's knee-jerk dismissal of new music diminishes my respect for them, so it does for the audience member, too.
Some classical fans (see the comment in the following link) want to see new music segregated from the old so they don't have to be exposed to it and have their concert ruined by that nasty new stuff, however exciting and listener-friendly it might be. There's an entire cottage industry of websites like this one devoted to trying to knock most forms of new music out of contention for canon status – or even more basic recognition as music. For what it's worth, some institutions have tried the segregated approach, with success. The Toronto Symphony, for instance, tried placing all its new music programming during a concentrated mid-season festival, with the result that concert attendance went up for both the living and the dead. Although I'm not a fan of ghettoizing new music in this way, it's become a winning formula for them, so congrats.
Composers, for their part, have reacted to the problem in a number of ways, foremost by creating their own specialized audiences outside the institutions largely devoted to the preservation and performance of the great masterwork repertoire, namely orchestras, opera houses and the like. The much maligned essay by Milton Babbitt, "Who Cares If You Listen?" (not his title, by the way), rather benignly argues for just this move. Fine, if you don't like or understand our music, we'll withdraw it to a forum where people do, regardless how few. All is well. Audiences get to keep their classics, composers get to write what they want for listeners who are enthusiastic about it, and everyone's happy. The real trouble, if you ask me, started when composers of that stripe started vying for mainstream status and got all bitter about not being given it. (Composer's Commandment #1: Know thine audience, and covet not that of thy neighbor.) To be fair, some fringe aesthetics have since been reabsorbed into the mainstream, notably the pulsing minimalism of Steve Reich and Philip Glass in North America, and the noise-based explorations of Helmut Lachenmann in Europe.
But if you're a composer like me, who always aimed to work in the mainstream music world, and who vigorously believes that the new and the old belong together if they are to continue to have mutual meaning as an art form, you run up against varying degrees of the Taliban attitude all the time, no matter how much energy you expend in making your work engaging and comprehensible to the mainstream listener. So to that end, with the hope of defusing some of the more conservative objections to new music, I offer a series of points about those of us composers still stuck in our mortal coil:
1) Most of us aren't really trying to be great.
At least not in the sense that the Great Masterworks are Great. Some few of us really do aspire to be included in that august lineage someday, and take every opportunity to try to write ourselves into it, but for the most part, we're really not trying to compete with Beethoven. (If ever there were a definition of futility...) No, most composers are much more like Bach, to choose a Great example: just trying to get from one gig to the next without embarrassing ourselves, do the work that needs to be done, and get on with our non-creative lives. It might help to remember that Bach was a working stiff, cranking out the product to support his large family, thoughts of future greatness far from his mind. Maybe keeping that in mind will help to put our modest contemporary efforts in perspective.
2) If it's not great, maybe it's just bad.
Duke Ellington said that there are only two kinds of music: good and bad. Unfortunately, being living people, we haven't had the benefit of history sifting off the chaff for us yet, and encounter bad music more often. Frequently, composers with active careers can be just as incompetent or unoriginal as in other fields, and we, the audience, must pay the price of suffering through their work. So when you fail to like a piece, maybe it's just not very good, and quality rarely has much to do with style. This goes doubly for music that hews close to the canonical tradition of the works people justly venerate. Often, more conservative pieces, a piano concerto slavishly following Rachmaninoff's example, for instance, will not appear to be as great as the real thing. This is simply because the great masterworks are SO GREAT that they're nigh impossible to improve upon, and trying to follow in their footsteps is all but doomed to failure.
3) Not all composers proceed from the same models.
If our living music cannot be said to measure up to the Greats, are you sure we're even on the same page? For instance, my compositional influences are many and diverse, but they don't really include the great Germanic composers as role models. I realized early on that my way of hearing music was an un-Germanic as can be, proceeding from my love of Renaissance modal polyphony, the coloristic mists of Debussy, and the intertwining melodic lines of many folk traditions. Whatever German influence there is – the chorales of Bach, the melodic touch of Mozart and Mendelssohn – is buried so deeply in my music as to be unnoticeable. Not that you're expected to know any of that as a casual listener, but before you judge me and my kind, maybe pause to wonder whether we're all into the same music first.
4) By dissing new music, you're enabling the bad guys.
Remember those composers upthread who withdrew from the mainstream, wrote music people hated, and then came back and tried to force it on listeners? They were fed the ultimate line of BS, that their music was the inevitable, linear result of the very canon of masterworks conservative listeners worshipped. Their music, and thus their place in the canon, was in a sense, preordained. They wrote ugly music nobody wanted to hear, claimed it was historically necessary, then used the canon to bludgeon into silence anyone – listener, performer, presenter and composer alike – who disagreed with them. Not that their music is entirely without merit. As with all ages of musical production, some of it rocks, and some of it... not so much. But by lumping any and all efforts by living composers into the same category of Unlistenable Garbage, ultra-conservative listeners are indirectly harming the thing they love by allowing this meme – that new music is always crunchy, discordant and foul – to stay in place.
5) If you haven't heard any new music you like, you haven't heard enough new music.
This is, as far as I can tell, as true a truism as there can be in subjective matters like aesthetic taste. Think of it this way: in our current age, anything goes as far as artistic creation is concerned. Style is no longer homogeneous, artists are no longer held to certain very specific lines of creative inquiry (unless you're German, but that's another blog post), and composers are free to integrate any and all elements from music history into the fabric of their work, or to discard them completely. It stands to reason that there is a living composer out there whose tastes coincide with yours, and whose music will make your soul sing. If you haven't found what you like yet, please keep trying. In essence, you live in the greatest of all possible artistic ages, when composers are free to make music as they wish, be it radically radical, or radically conservative. If you make an effort to seek out music that agrees with your tastes, I guarantee you will be richly rewarded.
I hope the above will be taken in the best possible spirit, as the words of an artist deeply interested in reaching his audience, but deeply concerned about the lack of accommodation displayed by part of that audience. If you accept that living composers are not out to bring down the Great Tradition of classical music (anymore), and that there are as many ways of addressing and interacting with that tradition as there are individual artists, you may find yourself enjoying your new music a bit more. I'm not telling you to eat your Wheaties. But to end on an oblique note, I'm also thrilled that my son's favorite book is Dr. Seuss' Green Eggs and Ham. It bodes well for his future as a gourmet, and as a listener.
Matthew Whittall, composer