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.