When a composer busts out of his genre
In my most recent post, I wrote about what I describe as "genre classical" -- choral, wind band, solo guitar, and other subsets of classical music, each thriving within its confines, but often under-appreciated in the broader classical world. The impetus for this post came from Wall Street Journal critic Terry Teachout's recent article called "The Best Composer You've Never Heard Of", singing the praises (if you'll pardon the expression) of American choral composer Morten Lauridsen.
Never heard of Morten Lauridsen? For most readers of the WSJ, that's probably true -- not that many of them could name a living American classical composer if asked. Indeed, as Teachout writes, "It's been a long time since an American classical composer became famous, much less popular." That's a large and important issue that faces classical music, one that's addressed less helpfully by Teachout's hand-wringing about the "marginal place of high culture in America" than by classical institutions engaging in brutal self-assessment and substantial reforms. Check out critic Greg Sandow's essential blog for well-informed commentary on these issues.
However, inside the world of choral music, Lauridsen is quite the big name. And he's one of the few "genre" composers to have broken through to the broader classical world with a smash hit, his "Lux Aeterna" of 1997. Lots of groups have performed it; the original CD became a surprise best-seller; we've played it plenty of times on WFCR. Maybe it's not quite a household piece, but on classical terms, "Lux Aeterna" qualifies as solid gold. Has this and other successes made Lauridsen one of the most performed, recognized and imitated of choral composers? You bet. Has he developed a following among classical fans? Yes, if you gauge followings according to a classical rather than pop scale. Has it earned him the respect and admiration of classical composers in all genres worldwide?
Not necessarily. I haven't taken a poll, but I have discussed it with a few composers and performers, including one who summed up a common if not unanimous view:
"(Lauridsen's) pieces are pretty, and inarguably well made, but they're all pretty and well made in exactly the same way. That's kind of the problem with niche composers like Lauridsen, (Eric) Whitacre, et al. Their music is so squishily pretty, so accessible and so consistent in what it delivers that it becomes over-popular, if that's possible. It forces a paradigm on the form where audiences and performers, generally amateurs whose tastes tend to run on the conservative side, expect all new music in the genre to sound just like that...Then the problem develops that if your music doesn't fit that paradigm, it doesn't get performed, no matter how pretty it is."
Wow, what complicated issues are raised by this response! Can a composer's oeuvre indeed become "over-popular"? Who gets to decide? Doesn't a fellow composer's bringing it up risk sounding (as admitted by my composer friend) like sour grapes? And what role does the (paying) audience get to play in shaping the sound of the classical music culture? Welcome to Classical World, the place where such battles over stylistic turf are fought every day -- while the larger world of arts and culture pays little attention. Of course, such things occur in all fields pursued by smart and intense people, and isn't going to change in classical music just because I or anyone else says it should.
But my composer friend does make some valid points. When you hear one of Lauridsen's works for the first time (and I'd recommend you check out "Lux Aeterna"), the effect can be stunning. You may rightly regard it as the most beautiful new thing you've heard in a while. When you then hear another of his works for the first time, it will probably strongly remind you of the first one. By the time you've reached the third, you've gotten the idea. Not uniquely among well-known composers, Lauridsen does tend to repeat himself, not literally, but with certain voicings (the way the notes of a chord are distibuted among the different performing parts), harmonies and melodic shapes. His musical and expressive range is, in fact, rather narrow. Despite Teachout's praise, I think this makes Lauridsen less-than-great in my magnus liber of composer rankings. The greatest composers may have a recognizable "voice", easily spotted throughout all their works, but they also have the skill and vision to express themselves in a wide variety of contexts and moods.
On the other hand, there's absolutely nothing wrong with a composer like Lauridsen finding his comfortable style, pursuing it for all it's worth, pleasing his public, and enjoying the fruits of his labor. He's pursued his career his way, and if other composers don't like it, they can do it their way. We, the classical public, are the beneficiaries of Lauridsen's gifts -- as long as we unwrap those gifts one at a time.
(Photo: Morten Lauridsen accepting the National Medal of Arts from President George W. Bush at the White House in 2007)