2 September 2005
Yes, we have no new music
[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.
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