Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra: making great music personal

composer's corner

a climate of fear

October 24, 2007

For this installment I would like to share a curious experience I just had, one that got me thinking about the state of things in the classical world.

The modern master John Adams came to speak for an hour and a half to our class of composers at the Peabody Institute in Baltimore where I teach. He was in town to conduct his own works as well as Beethoven’s with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra. He began by discussing Beethoven, whose music he had been studying feverishly in preparation for his conducting of it. He related that, perhaps more powerfully than any other music in history (“and it seems odd to say that,” he said) Beethoven’s grabs the audience and doesn’t let it go, it sets up expectations and delivers in ultra-satisfying ways. In short, he said, Beethoven gives the audience “what they want” whereas modern composers are always withholding, always saying, “I’m not going to give it to you!” This got a nice laugh from the students.

I raised my hand and said I was perplexed by this issue, and could he discuss it in relation to his own work, the responsibility he feels to adopt at some level modernist ideals, etc. He described Adorno’s response to the horrors of Auschwitz, after which the philosopher (incorrectly, as it turned out) believed there could be no more art. Nevertheless in the wake of this and other war-time atrocities, irony necessarily became a chief aesthetic ideal. I could only surmise that the kind of generosity one finds in Beethoven took a backseat.

Mr. Adams then likened many younger composers working today as “puppies” eager to please the listener, soothingly telling the audience through their music, “It’s OK, don’t worry about modernism, it’ll be OK…” (Another healthy, locker-room chuckle from the students). Mr. Adams then said he may be partly to blame for creating this paradigm, for in some of his earlier works he had imbued the rather austere face of pure minimalism with a more romantic, lyrical, accessible veneer, and the influence of these works may to some degree license the approach taken by some of today’s younger composers (I must add myself to this list of disciples; when as a freshman at Eastman I first heard The Chairman Dances, it literally changed my life).

He also discussed the many ways in which he found Schoenberg (the father of modernism in music) unsatisfying, the way the harmony is always “defeating itself”, etc. But Mr. Adams then expressed some guilt at having just criticized a composer whose work had been so influential throughout his career. I could only imagine this influence was purely theoretical/ideological since he obviously couldn’t stand his music!

Well, all of this makes me think we are in a very odd place creatively. So it’s OK for Beethoven to be a “puppy” (though I can’t imagine he has too often been compared to one!), but it’s overwhelmingly not OK for the contemporary composer to set out to entertain his audience, artfully set up expectations and then follow through on them and drive the point home with unmistakable assuredness, write in a language that has meaning to the audience, keep things as clear and simple as necessary rather than piling on layers and layers of complexity for their own sake, risk sentimentality (or even strive for it!) by allowing the music go where the heart says it should go. Why was it OK for Beethoven to write incredibly satisfying and engaging music, but now the rules have changed?

It was a bit disheartening to hear this coming from one of my creative idols, a composer whose work I love as much as any living composer and which I continue to study with true amazement. But I admittedly grew up with a different cultural landscape, with the battles already having been fought so to speak. It’s easier for me to feel unencumbered by this or that ideology. I will write in the way I feel is most effective, period.

Should heart-wrenching music of great sentiment and beauty be the only music written these days? Absolutely not, but the young composer who feels like throwing his heart into the daring endeavor of possibly engaging an audience completely (and possibly failing, since we all can hear when music that tries to work on this level doesn’t) should not be bullied by a modern art community which is pathologically afraid to feel. I certainly won’t.


Kevin, I second your conclusion. Away from music (in "real life", if you like) if we didn't - or refused to - get to the point in a conversation with someone we'd be considered incoherent, noncommittal, cagey, immature, etc ... do we want to create any of these impressions through our music? I don't think so. In jazz, where I come from musically, the credo rules: "If you've got something [heartfelt] to say, say it!". That, of course, doesn't rule out complexity. I know - and know of - a lot of people who know how to express themselves clearly, yet with complexity - be it through words or through music.

  • —Gernot Wolfgang, November 04, 2007 12:02 pm

I'm not sure I agree with John Adams' take on modern music. From Mozart through Rachmaninoff most composers were performers and whether they ate or starved depended on their ability to connect with audiences. Most modern composers are supported by grant money, so their careers are built on pleasing granting agencies and the agencies' referees (other composers, conductors, etc.) who recommend what proposals should be funded. Such composers have little motivation to write music that has any especial audience appeal, and the average concertgoer has been cut out of the loop and has no say about what modern music does and doesn't get played. The result is that what we hear in concert halls is often pretty dismal.

  • —Dana Sutton, December 19, 2007 04:23 pm

Dana, thanks so much for your comments - you've opened up a whole range of subjects for discussion! I feel I've just got to jump in to answer your assertion that "most modern composers are supported by grant money."

Without a doubt, grants *do* help support the work of today's composers, and can be essential in getting new work to the completion stage, either through direct awards (primarily for specific commissions) or through a grant to an organization (like LACO) that hires composers. In general, though, grants alone aren't enough to keep composers afloat. Pretty much all of the composers I know also educate, perform their own music and others', work in the pop and commercial arenas, and/or have completely unrelated jobs to make ends meet. Very few - and really, none worth their salt - waste their time writing concert music that they don't believe in, and that will probably only be performed a few times, just to win grants.

Obviously, the "agencies' referees" who sit on the panels that advise grantmakers what and whom to fund affect what kind of music gets made, and they certainly have prejudices about what constitutes artistic intent. But as the generations of composers that either broke away from or came of age after the more abstract, conceptual and yes, somewhat dogmatic, schools of the post-war period are now taking their places on such panels, I think we are and will be hearing more accessible contemporary work. As examples, I can cite LACO commissions and co-commissions of recent years by Pierre Jalbert, Joel McNeely, Donald Crockett, Robert Aldridge, Uri Caine, Gernot Wolfgang and Reza Vali, all of which were supported by grants from the NEA, the American Music Center, Meet the Composer and/or the Argosy Foundation Contemporary Music Fund.

Finally, as the coordinator of LACO's Sound Investment program, I can't let this opportunity go by, since Sound Investment is a purely populist funding mechanism for new music. (Click on the "Support LACO" link above to find out more.) Although each season's commissioned composer is selected by our music director, Jeffrey Kahane, individuals can certainly vote with their wallets on whether or not to support the new work, with the bonus of getting to hear the work in its formative stages and talk directly to the composer about his creative choices.

  • —Michelle Weger, December 26, 2007 11:59 am

I feel that as artists, we have to try to communicate with audiences. There is no point in writing music when only three other people are going to get it. It reminds me of readings of poetry where everybody in the audience is a poet. This is a little sad and somewhat pointless.
I feel that the modernist school of Schoenberg has failed to enter the culture that surrounds it. Have you ever heard an atonal rock or pop song? The ideas that Schoenberg proposed were different and they opened some doors but they failed to crystalize in a new aesthetic. Modernism has been confined to schools and a concert audience that instead of expanding with the incredible media explosion we have had in the last half century, has contracted to the point that many orchestras are in the red and rely heavily on donations, grants and government subsidies to continue. I have a friend that will cancel his tickets to the Philharmonic when a new work is premiered.
Another prove of the failure of modernist music to grab a hold of an audience is the early music movement. Listen, if modern composers were creating very interesting and captivating music, people would be way more interested in hearing the latest compositions than in digging 300 years ago for obscure composers. But people have heard the masterpieces many times and want variety, so they look to the past, as we are not supplying them with acceptable new works.
So we have to just write for our audience, shake the influence of these new Authorities, like many musicians have done with their authorities in their past, while trying to be true to our feelings and our own ideals. That way we will be able to get past this hurdle and reconnect with a public before we lose it completely.

  • —Sergio Barer, December 26, 2007 01:41 pm

  • —d. rothman, December 26, 2007 01:43 pm

Susan McClary's wonderful article "Terminal Prestige," talks about that postwar period when the only way to become an "important" composer was to write music that an ordinary person couldn't understand. Fortunately those days are over; composers' prestige is connected with other things now. But some of the old baggage remains, including the idea that, in order to be taken seriously, music mustn't be too attractive or appealing on its surface. Many composers are working to shed that baggage, but it's easy to see it still at work in this discussion, in reviews of new music, in programming, and in composers' fretting about how enjoyable their music ought to be.
Another difficulty is that people don't agree about what is beautiful, what is heartfelt, what is understandable. It has happened many times in music history, and it continues to happen, that a composer writes something intended to communicate directly about profound feelings, and yet some listeners find that music devoid of emotion, others find it incomprehensible, and others find it simplistic, while still others may be deeply moved. It is not easy to say what music is communicative and what is not.
In Beethoven's time some people found his music baffling or offensive. People didn't agree that it perfectly balanced expectations and reward. One reason that Beethoven's music is easy to admire now is that his pieces have been used for so long to define quality. By now, classical musicians and music lovers are completely comfortable with Beethoven's idea of a good time. Does this mean that the music serves its audience perfectly, or rather that the audience has adapted to that particular music? (Remember, too, that most people seem to be staying away from Beethoven these days. What does that say about the appeal of his ideas?) Ernst Toch's complaint about the 5th Symphony's long-winded ending reminds me that, like any masterwork, Beethoven's music has its flaws.
On the other hand, Beethoven and other famous composers seem to have been very interested in how their music affected people. They sometimes made changes after the first performance, in order to improve the effect of the music.
And this brings up the idea that one purpose of music is to affect listeners. It's not the only purpose, but the listeners I know seem very interested in being affected. It seems odd to me that, even though composers and performers take so much care to put on good concerts, orchestras know very little about what effect the music has on their audience. This is true not only of new music, but of all the music orchestras play. The audience has precious little influence on what happens in concerts; decisions about what's good and what to program are all made by "experts." This has negative effects not only on composers, but on the entire classical music endeavor. (I don't mean to suggest that audience members should program concerts, only that a lively dialogue about human responses to the music would invigorate concert life.)
Okay, one last thing: I think it's up to musicians to choose their musical purpose. There are many possible purposes: to entertain, to provoke, to evoke emotion, to foster particular states of mind, to construct musical objects with particular qualities, to try out certain techniques or ideas, etc. In a healthy musical ecosystem, different musical events would have different purposes, and we wouldn't have to discuss which purposes were "better."

  • —Daniel Rothman, December 26, 2007 09:40 pm

I believe the discussion of audience is important to consider for modern composers. Yes, one must compose music that expresses the innermost thoughts of the composer, yet, as in Beethoven's time as others, one must compose music that captures and captivates the audience. Music is about expression or impression, but it is also about communication. Without communication (with an audience) there is little interest for that audience. This has nothing to do with populist vs. avant garde, but rather the communication between composer and audience. When I compose a new piece, the audience is a consideration...who am I talking to?...this is not to say one must compose in a strict and staid fashion playing into the audience's hands, but one must consider, while composing, who am I conversing with...be it a more populist, common-practice tonality, avant garde sonic art, or anything between. The most successful composers are those that know the audience to which they compose for. Not knowing the audience is a gamble. I personally have composed many works, within a populist format as well as some of the most avant garde sonic art and everything between. My personal compositional motto is communication, no matter what audience I play to. Without communication, an audience is left without interest in what you have to say, no matter how interesting the message is nor how well executed that message is stated.

  • —R.F. Leng, December 27, 2007 01:26 am

Sergio wrote: "There is no point in writing music when only three other people are going to get it." Depends on why you're writing that particular piece of music. I've written pieces I know no one's going to get, maybe even aren't all that great, but I still love and they still mean something to me. They're probably not going to be a commercial success, but I still had a reason to write them. Doesn't make them any less valid. It just means they won't go down in history as masterpieces.

I think part of the problem is lack of exposure to different kinds of music early on in life, especially in schools. My guess is that many concert-goers want to hear what they know, or what sounds familiar, because they aren't used to being challenged and LIKING it. You're not going to force challenging music on people if they don't want it. The trick is getting them to want it. I think if people are exposed to a wider range of music and music styles, they will be more open to different things, and this exposure to these different styles must happen early on in life, and regularly. Few young people are going to go from Britney to Berg in one leap. Finding people to write and perform "modernistic" music is not the tricky part. Getting the listening audience to desire it, and not just go to hear it once or twice, is the real challenge. Achieving this goal falls on many groups in our society: educators, parents, etc., as well as music programmers. But, you gotta get them to want it too....

  • —Gordon Wimpress, December 27, 2007 06:42 am

Some readers of these comments might like Greg Sandow's blog, http://www.artsjournal.com/sandow/--it deals with many of the issues coming up here, including the general health of concert music.
For a long time I was sort of dismissive of listeners who specialized in music of the past. I thought they were timid or lacking in a spirit of adventure. Recently a presenter with a conservative audience described her stalwart subscribers as extremely passionate people who have had very intense and rewarding experiences with music in certain styles, and they come to concerts hungry for more such experiences with similar music. The presenter was frustrated with this situation because she has a wider taste, but I developed a little more respect for the enthusiasm of that kind of audience. I was wrong to see them as complacent; they are deeply in love with something and hungry for more of it.
Meanwhile other listeners love sonic adventuring, and they are hungry for new experiences. It seems to me that these are the listeners to cultivate for new music, instead of bothering people who love older styles, There are probably lots of people who would love new music, but who don't attend classical concerts because of the emphasis on old styles. And of course there are some audiences, like those who attend LACO, Pacific Serenades, and Jacaranda, who seem to have wide-ranging musical enthusiasms.

  • —John Steinmetz, December 27, 2007 09:07 am

Wow, I have created a monster. What I am reading proves to me what I have always suspected, that composers should avoid at all costs--no matter how much prodding comes from critics and others--talking about their "views" lest they appear something short of true artists.

It goes without saying that any composer of concert music worth anything cares only about satisfying his/her own artistic needs when setting pen to paper. It's just nice that these days composers like me can write what we want, and after giving it some thought, I don't feel my career has been determined by too many panels of composers. Yes, sometimes panels decide grant money, but the REAL decision to commission always seems to comes from artists how want to premiere my music. Over time, I have simply found the artists who like and support what I am doing.

And personally, the idea that we have been "conditioned" to think Beethoven is appealing is ridiculous. I remember being taken to the record store when I was 5 years old to replace the copy of Beethoven's 5th Sym. that my dad had accidentally broken. I certainly hadn't been conditioned yet! I guess the question is, what if my parents had been playing Wozzeck around the house?

Far be it from me to argue with Flaubert or Ned Rorem's aversion to masterpieces, but I guess I don't mind when something is staggeringly wonderful. When I think of works of music or letters commonly considered "great" (oh, I don't know...Beethoven 9, Hamlet, The Rite of Spring, To Kill a Mockingbird, Bach b minor Mass, Moby Dick, Mozart Marriage of Figaro, The Ring Cycle, etc etc) the phrase "tranquil faces of big dumb animals" or whatever it was doesn't exactly spring to mind.

  • —Kevin Puts, December 27, 2007 09:11 am

Daniel Rothman writes: "John Adams, who said for an interview with the London Financial Times a couple years ago that there are no American composers writing good orchestral music today..."

I must respectfully point out that John Adams said no such thing (at least not in his interview with Financial Times chief music critic Andrew Clark in June 2003), and, having known him for 35 years, I find it extremely difficult to believe that he would ever make an outrageous blanket statement like that. What he DID (allegedly) express in that interview, which is a very different matter, is his opinion that MOST American composers writing for orchestra today are not very interesting. (I might add that the genuinely great and interesting composers at the turn of the 19th century could be counted on the fingers of two hands (maybe even one), one could have said the same thing about composers in 1800. And he immediately followed that with the words, "Sorry about that." Having been interviewed hundreds of times myself and then watched as my words were taken out of context and/or twisted beyond recognition, I would emphasize that all we know for certain is what the interviewer and/or his editor chose to print.

I have a good deal more to add to this whole discussion which will be posted in the next few days. In the meantime, Happy New Year to all and thanks for all the very interesting food for thought!

  • —Jeffrey Kahane, December 27, 2007 12:16 pm

  • —Rothman, December 27, 2007 02:25 pm

To me the biggest problem in this discussion (and others similar to it) seems to be the underlying notions: Notions of progressive historical continuity in music, notions of an abstract ideal state of things which we have either lost and/or not yet attained, and finally notions that music inherently carries an absolute, eternal value which, while eluding capture, clearly resides more in some musical expressions than in others.  

These notions put together always imply that A) there is an ideal state of music, and a perfect way of making and sharing it, to which all musical expressions should aspire, that B) there is a historically inherited responsibility resting upon us to fulfill such an aspiration, and that C) there is some unnamed doom imminent should we fail to do so properly.

Take for instance Adams' remarks as related by Kevin that started this discussion: Here is a very accomplished musician who studies Beethoven in detail and shares his excitement for the mastery he discovered in the works.  So far so good.  But then we enter the twilight zone (...more powerfully than any other music in history - nobody outside of the reach of academic concert music indoctrination could make such a remark with a straight face!)  One can go through Kevin's account and read Adams' remarks step by step like a credo to these mythical notions of music's 1. unquestioned historical continuity, 2. elusive ideal state and 3. inherent absolute and unchanging value.  And of course he is far from being alone, these notions still form the basis for most discussions I've witnessed in the realm of concert music.

By now I'm sure it's not hard to tell that I believe all these notions are bunk.  To me they are at best gross simplifications, borne from a 19th century encyclopedic mindset, of a complex and dynamic interplay of forces, ideas and circumstances. 

Since these notions have no basis in reality, they can contribute nothing to an analysis of musical or cultural environments, present or past, or to the development of strategies on how and where music can live and thrive in our here-and-now, and how it can and should relate to the people around it. In fact they always do get in the way of a fruitful discussion. And this in my mind is why these discussions seem to often go around in circles - the axioms are off, so the equation can't resolve.

Once we take the Heilslehre elements out of the discussion, once the holy grail is relegated to mythology, the issue on how/when/where to consider the audience to me seems to become considerably simpler.  I think John nailed it when he raised the question of purpose. Dan mentioned he prefers the words reason or motivation, but I actually call it function, since even purpose doesn't seem mundane enough to me!  And I feel it is important to get the discussion back to the mundane, to being of this world!

So once we are no longer chasing some elusive illusion of the eternal importance of our own musical actions (and come to think of it, what hubris to go there in the first place!), we can easily accommodate in our world view music that is written for a specific audience and/or function, music that is as authentic an expression of the creator's original intent or idea as it can be, music that serves to explore possibilities inherent in a purely musical thought or idea or challenge, music that emanates from a less conscious state (whether religious ecstasy or drunken late-night piano improvs), and on and on.  And all these various approaches can be (and very often have been) employed within the output of a single composer.

In other words, once the underlying bloated assumptions are successfully dismissed, an overbearing philosophical issue becomes nothing but a series of practical questions and challenges faced by the practitioners of an art and a craft, to be addressed on a case-by-case basis.

  • —Rothman respectfully to Kahane, December 27, 2007 10:52 pm

  • —Gernot Wolfgang, January 01, 2008 02:41 pm

With all these engaging blogs, this discussion of reaching audiences with your music is best addressed for me by Gernot Wolfgang who (like me) comes from jazz.
It's a great place to be born musically because it sits in a great place in relation to classical concert music, especially of the 20th century variety. In terms of the discussion here, if you have great "chops" but you're not playing from the heart, then you simply aren't communicating or moving your audience. But what does that really mean? Cecil Taylor comes to mind who I heard at the Village Vanguard in the mid-70's. I know he loved both contemporary classical music as well as, of course, jazz. He just didn't swing. But he played from the heart. The set went one hour and 20 min. nonstop and I couldn't move during it and have never forgotten it. When I was a kid, I used to listen to Coltrane and cry. The great improvisers played (and composed) directly from the heart. So why were 2% of the music buying public buying jazz by the mid-70's, compared to 70% in the late 30's? Not because jazz musicians suddenly weren't playing (and writing) from the heart. The kind of music that audiences respond to changes even when artists don't. So another take on what audiences will respond to appears, and the public responds to that. Social change can make you a product of yesterday, but playing or writing from your gut is certainly not irrelevant.
As Gernot stated, "write what you can feel. Chances are if you can feel it, somebody else can too". Playing guessing games with what will communicate isn't any better than ignoring your audience all together. Write and play from the heart and keep it tuned to everything else going on around you, and forget the rest. Concertgoers will rarely love everything they hear and that's probably better for all of us anyway.

  • —Steve Lockwood, January 02, 2008 08:44 pm

It is nice to see this kind of discussion taking place among serious musicians.

I personally think that the whole audience thing is a red herring, and I think that Gernot put his finger on the true issue. For me, it is about authenticity. If you truly write music that is meaningful to you, it will speak to others. That has certainly been my experience.

But it needs to be more than that. It needs to be original, but not in the sense that that is typically understood in our academic musical culture.

To my ear, there have been a lot of composers who have subscribed to a meta-narrative of artistic "progress" and have tried to treat music as a science, perhaps because tenure depended on it, or grants, or fashion. Just consider for a moment the 20th-century composers we study (predominantly 2nd Viennese School and avant-garde) and the ones who have actually entered the repertoire. How many of us have had a class analyzing Barber or Copland, Shostakovich, Prokofiev, Ravel, etc? Is this not music worthy of study? But it is so much easier (and lazier) to point to a new technique or concept and say "that is new" than to grapple with the subtlety and complexity of real music.

All that said, I think it is too facile to say that Beethoven wrote music that pleased his audience. He challenged his audience. Stretched them. And lost many of them. He was considered uncouth, heavy-handed, barbaric. But he was exploring new avenues of expression and ultimately the humanity and necessity of his music prevailed.

He wrote music that did not sound like any other composer. But he did not jump radically into the void. His music evolved from his predecessors (particularly Haydn), gradually exploring new terrain. Although commonly called revolutionary, I find him evolutionary.

Frankly, I think a lot of young composers are encouraged to find a shtick that is "different" and therefore "innovative" or "original", rather than painstakingly developing their own authentic compositional voice by synthesizing and, yes, imitating their influences. I find this an entirely superficial way to develop composers.

Fortunately, we seem to be emerging from our long, dark winter (and have been for many years). Here's to hoping we do not find the next hole to fall into...

  • —Peter Knell, January 04, 2008 03:20 pm

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