The Finch Formerly Known As Gold

2 September 2005

Yes, we have no new music

Composer Ned Rorem complains to The New York Times:

[W]hy not use more relevant programming? The last 80 years have been the sole period in history in which music of the past has taken precedence over music of the present. Today any work by a live composer is balanced against a hundred works by Mozart or Beethoven (or Brahms or Dvorak).

One is tempted to ask, "Have you heard any of the music of the last 80 years?" Rorem, of course, has; he's written quite a lot of it. But he's hardly a staple of the American repertoire, and I have to assume that he's not at all happy about that.

Lynn isn't buying Rorem's complaint:

Not to disparage modern composers, some of whom I like very well, but what the heck makes Ned Rorem and all the other self-righteous and out of touch residents of the Ivory Tower think that they are relevant? Go to any mall or street corner in the US and start asking people, "Who is John Adams?" and maybe as many as 20 percent will say that he was the second president of the United States, 40 percent will say, "Uh ... I don't know; someone in the American Revolution, maybe?" and the other 40 percent won't have a clue. Don't even waste your time asking anyone if they know who Ned Rorem is. Merely being alive and having the stamp of approval from one's fellow academics does not make one relevant.

Imagine asking them "Who is Samuel Adams?"

There are a number of factors at work here, but they all boil down to "We play what the audience wants." And if too often it seems that what the audience wants is the same old thing, it's partly because the present-day marketplace doesn't make it easy to seek out the new and unheard — but it's also partly because some people, having heard it, don't particularly want to hear it again. And the conservatism of our orchestras and our ensembles and our radio stations is thus reinforced. The late Ainslee Cox, conductor and music director of the Oklahoma City Symphony Orchestra during the early 1980s, was a tireless champion of new music, premiering a number of new works every season; it was perhaps inevitable that he would clash with the mossbacks on the Symphony board, and he departed. (In a curious example of synchronicity, both Cox and the Symphony itself died in 1988.)

Cox's attitude, basically, was "Maybe they'll like it. It's certainly worth the effort." He certainly didn't seem to think that it was the audience's job to drag itself up to contemporary standards of au courant-ness, a sentiment Lynn would appreciate:

Composers ... have to quit acting as if it is the audience's responsibility to "catch up". Mozart and Haydn understood that it is possible to write challenging and technically sophisticated music that is also pleasing to less sophisticated ears. In their day composers were considered servants. Maybe the problem with modern classical music is that composers have forgotten their place.

I used to call this "I Am An Artist, Dammit" Syndrome. However, the onus isn't entirely upon the composer to make himself accessible: the trick, of course, is getting the audience to meet him halfway.

Posted at 8:36 AM to Tongue and Groove


Just before reading this post I was listening to a classical station and the DJ said, "Remember, all music was once new."

I thought it curious and wondered why he said it (it was the only thing he said other than introducing the next "old" piece). I'm guessing he is a Dustbury fan.

Posted by: Jan at 9:28 AM on 2 September 2005

This is the tagline of Composers Datebook; I have no reason to think they pay any attention to the likes of me.

Posted by: CGHill at 9:35 AM on 2 September 2005

The end of the patronage system has ruined the arts.

Posted by: Dave Schuler at 12:26 PM on 2 September 2005

No one cares who Samuel Adams is.

Posted by: buddyhackett at 3:11 PM on 2 September 2005

I happen to be a Composer and I'm not worrying too much about whether I am considered relevant now - most of my stuff is so far out on the avant-garde I would be worried if it was broadly accepted. ;)

Posted by: Matthew at 3:23 PM on 2 September 2005

Which leads to another question: does the term avant-garde, in today's cultural milieu, attract or repel the audience?

I lean very slightly towards "attract," but then I've seen and/or heard very few things I actually found repellent.

Posted by: CGHill at 3:26 PM on 2 September 2005

Go you. And, Lynn.

Danny Elfman should kick that Ned guy's ass. ;)

Posted by: althea_dahlia at 3:43 PM on 2 September 2005

Both, CG, it should do both - but elegantly. :)

Posted by: Matthew at 1:14 AM on 3 September 2005

I think the answer is fairly simple: the audience hates modern serious music, and they hate it because, to a lot of us, it sounds ugly. Once upon a time the modernists could say the audience just didnt get it, but it has been almost a century since Stravinsky debuted The Rite of Spring, which alerted the world that a revolution was on its way, and at this point the audience does get it, and the audience simply doesnt want it. The unparalleled rise of popular music in the 20th century was, to my mind, not simply the product of new recording technologies, but also a repudiation by the public of modern serious music. In their day Mozart, Verdi, and Rossini, among others, were popular composers whose works meant something not merely to the educated elites but to broad popular audiences as well; is there a greater tribute to any musician than the one given by the crowd following Verdi's coffin to the graveyard, a crowd that had been told that the maestro wanted only silence at his funeral, spontaneously breaking into the aria Va, pensiero from Nabucco, a song I have heard some people call Italy's unofficial national anthem? Does anyone know anything by Rorem that they could sing at his funeral? I think the audience knows when it is being treated with contempt and simply left modern serious music in the cul de sac it apparently wants to be in, and they have moved on to other things.

Posted by: akaky at 10:07 AM on 3 September 2005