Contemporary Music: A Weekend of Reflections

Recently the 92nd Street YM-YWHA in New York City devoted two full days to an intensive exploration of the current status and direction of contemporary music. Luminaries from many facets of the new music scene attended the series of panel discussions. In each session, a paper was presented, followed by reactions from panel members, and then from members of the audience. Topics ranged from the philosophical to the practical, and included approaches to composition in the 1980s, the composer as performer, the heritage of American music from the period between the two World Wars, opportunities for foundation support of new music, and issues pertaining to the performing, broadcasting, and recording of contemporary music.

Despite the moods of pessimism, hopelessness, and martyrdom that usually pervade discussions of modern music, some positive signs were evident. A theme that recurred often throughout the conference was one introduced by George Rochberg during the first address: the recognition that the dominant emphasis since World War 11 on structural manipulation at the expense of expressive, spiritual, or emotional content, and the concomitant renunciation by composers of their rich aesthetic heritage, have destroyed rapport between composer and performer and between composer and listener. Rochberg offered his own attempt to re-embrace this heritage, reconciling past and present in a broader musical language, as a positive example for consideration. Rochberg would have demonstrated more magnanimity, however, had he acknowledged the dozens of composers who, for the past three or four decades, have practiced precisely what he now espouses — and at a time when doing so often brought instant dismissal from serious consideration. As it is, Rochberg’s posture as reformed sinner has brought him tremendous publicity for the past few years. But his address, which reiterated the obvious with extraordinary verbosity, drew a good deal of antagonism from his colleagues on the panel, who included Hugo Weisgall, Morton Subotnick, and Jacob Druckman. Each of them protested with pompous indignation a perceived prescriptiveness in Rochberg’s own personal alternative, but all were essentially in substantive agreement with him, in spite of themselves, concerning the general issues. Only Subotnick objected to Rochberg’s admission of “failure” on the part of contemporary composers, insisting that failure only implies either an absence of commercial success or a betrayal of one’s own creative satisfaction and integrity. But Subotnick revealed the solipsistic arrogance characteristic of so many composers in his refusal to acknowledge that the inability to achieve artistic communicationa prime concern-is also a form of failure.

An important corollary that emerged during the course of the proceedings was a revelation of the coerciveness with which the “traditional” wing of 20th-century music has been suppressed by the academic musical establishment, and the degree to which dissent has been silenced through subtle forms of intimidation. For example, Gregory Sandow, composer and critic for the Village Voice, confessed to being unable to admit to himself an admiration for the music of Benjamin Britten until respected academics like Rochberg openly accepted it. And after Samuel Lipman ofCommentary presented a paper extolling the wealth of musical treasures to be discovered among American composers of the generation that produced Hanson, Cowell, Barber, Schuman, and others, Peter G. Davis of the New York Times admitted a long-held admiration for these composers that he had been afraid to confess publicly. The intensity of this de facto censorship was evident in an incident related by conductor Gerard Schwarz, in which he described being severely ostracized by the contemporary-music ensemble Speculum Musicae, of which he had been a member, when they learned that he had chosen Samuel Barber as recipient of a major commission. Even Arthur Weisberg, conductor of the Contemporary Chamber Ensemble, reportedly claims that he disliked most of the modern works he performed, but was responding to socio-political pressure. With such cowardly submission to a party line rampant, it is no wonder that audiences have become conditioned to an automatic skepticism concerning contemporary music. As Schwarz emphasized, it is foolish to expect audiences to appreciate music presented and performed with feigned conviction. Performers must exercise freedom in selecting contemporary music that they can present with honest pride, and Schwarz knows that there is plenty awaiting discovery and exposure.

One cannot help but be struck by the pathetic assumption expressed by Polygram’s Guenter Hensler, in the discussion that appeared in Fanfare IV: 3, that only a small, finite number of classical works is capable of generating a meaningful public following. Unfortunately, the problems raised by Hensler and Shepard about the musicians and their union — the greedy “artists” who willingly strangle their own art form to death in a quest for ever more exorbitant salaries — are outside the context of this commentary. But the fact that the public is able to accept an umpteenth brand of breakfast cereal or cigarette but not new musical repertoire is a devastating indication of the lack of imagination and creativity exhibited by performers, record companies, and their related agencies. An art form that is not continually infused with new works is a dead art, and embalming is only a temporary cosmetic measure. The answer is not simply, “New music? We did some new music and .the audience hated it (or they refused to buy it). So it’s back to Beethoven.” The responsibility is with the performers and producers to find new music that will succeed, and if they can’t find it, then they don’t know how to do their jobs.

An atypical attitude was expressed at the conference by Steve Reich, who seems to have bypassed many of the problems that plague most of the new-music crowd. He has developed an ensemble of musicians, in which he himself performs, and they play his music with tremendous refinement, precision, and conviction. Reich spoke with the confidence that comes with success, emphasizing the constructive virtues of a composer’s taking responsibility for earning his living directly from his own music. While acknowledging that performing was neither possible nor necessary for all composers, he cited the important benefits of a composer’s immersing himself in the actual communication process. Reich has acquired a large, enthusiastic following, not limited to the institutional classical music scene, and his performances are regularly packed. He has also turned a rare business acumen, praised enviously by Lukas Foss, to his decided advantage. I am not proposing Steve Reich as a musical model for contemporary composers, but he does represent a phenomenon from which there is much to learn.

If there is indeed some sort of honest, large-scale re-assessment taking place, it is important for listeners also to re-evaluate their positions, and to give a chance to those composers, performers, and commentators who indicate a sensitivity to these issues and a sincere commitment to values they can share.