On the New Musical Puritanism

On the New Musical Puritanism

That critical commentary has historically been a very bad predictor
of significant trends in composition is a truism. A composer does
not, however, need to be aware of this fact to learn very quickly to
dismiss most criticism and most critics. Most of us have had
repeated experiences of bewilderment resulting from eminently
well-composed pieces denigrated as “unprofessional,” inspired work
rejected as “naive” or “meandering,” a composer responsible for
decades of musical incohence lauded for his wit, insouciance, and
mastery of structure etc. Insofar as these responses are random
expressions of taste, or simple mishearings, journalistic criticism
does not merit serious attention. Insofar as there is a pattern to
displays of critical enthusiasm or antipathy, these are worth
registering not because they reflect on the essential quality of the
music under discussion, but rather because they provide indications
of how the reality is perceived by the opinion making sector of the
musical establishment. And, by revealing those sorts of music which
will be likely to receive a favorable, or at least not immediately
dismissive reaction, patterns of critical approval or rejection inform
programming choices especially given the insecure relationship to
contemporary music–one which most performers will own up to, at
least after a couple of drinks. The upshot is that critical response
does not just document one aspect of an ephemeral musical present,
it becomes, unfortunately I will argue, a guide to what is likely to be
performed in the near-term musical future.

These matters aside, what is painfully evident from a day to day
monitoring of arts pages is that these are not happy times for
concert music. Declining, disproportionately geriatric audiences,
cuts in arts funding, an elite intellectual culture which has become
deeply suspicious of what it sees as a socially constructed distinction
between high-low art forms, these and other factors have precipated
a decade long state of “crisis” which, while having been the cause of
much hand-wringing, has elicited few viable solutions. Whether the
reports of “the death of classical music” are to be believed is not
what I want to discuss here. My opinion, for what its worth, is that
the indications are decidedly mixed. Rather, it is the perception of a
continual crisis which is important since it is this perception and the
response to it which defines important aspects of the intellectual
and artistic atmosphere of concert music.

As has been noted by historians since Thucidides, protracted
periods of insecurity have given rise to a range of responses, one of
which is an upsurge in forms of religious fundamentalism. These
have often taken an isolationist form, the most notable example in
our recent past being the Reagan era retreat of born-again
Christians to “cities on the hill” distant from the corrupting
influences of the larger society. Self-segregation has been
accompanied by nostalgia for a mythical past of spirtual and moral
righteousness and attempted resuscitation of the “old time”
religious rituals and codes of conduct. While by no means
sympathetic to these tendencies in the larger culture the classical
establishment’s reaction to its “crisis,” at least insofar as this
reaction is articulated in establishment critical commentary, bears
close comparison to it. What is implicitly and often explictly being
advocated is a turn inward, away from the chaos presented by the
admittedly depressing hyper-commercial realities of current day
musical culture. The solution offered by critics, while superficially
offering the appearance of a defense of territory is really a retreat to
an easily defended, well fortified position: salvation lies in a newly
purified relationship of concert music to the canon of masterworks,
accepting on faith its “sacred” obligation to provide spiritual uplift
and a reclaiming of its traditional role as a moral touchstone within
the culture.

A recent Times column by Joseph Horowitz on Shostakovich
provides a conspicuous display of some of these attitudes.
Shostakovich is portrayed as a virtual saint who “redeem(s) music as
a moral force” and thereby serves as “a moral beacon for our times.”
Also characteristic is Horowitz’ evocation of a distant past in which
“the equation of great music with spritual uplift was a prevailing
article of faith. Music making and music making were cherished as
inherently wholesome activities. Concerts were morally
empowering.” Horowitz is by no means alone in his calls to reclaim
the moral authority of music from the corrupting influences of the
present. Similar positions staked out by neo-conservatives such as
Roger Scruton are equally explicit on the necessity for concert music
to augment its artistic function with moral and spiritual evangelism.
Musicians, of course, are themselves are by no means immune to
such moralizing. Composers such as Charles Wuorininen and Mario
Davidovsky who yearn for the return of the halycon days of highmodernist
purity have routinely impugned the personal integrity of
composers who do not abide by, and have achieved a measure of
success, by rejecting the severe, serialist expressionist orthodoxies of
their predecessors.

I don’t mean to be dismissive of these attitudes. Indeed, I am
sympathetic to the argument that a form of a musical
fundamentalism, if not puritanism, is a necessary starting point for
the discussion of the performance of musical masterpieces. For only
when the work itself is seen as beyond reproach can the success of
the performer in bringing out the work’s structural subtleties and
expressive intent be evaluated. I should also make clear that I share
the deeply held belief that masterpieces need to be continually reengaged
by performers and audiences. The post-canonic future
cheered on by post-modernists which denigrates the existence of
masterpieces is not one I, or any artistically sane person, would
want to live in.

At the same time, it needs also to be understood that a climate
defined by musical puritanism, virtually by definition offers less
than optimal, indeed arguably the worst possible conditions for the
reception of contemporary music. In particular, the numerous
forms of contemporary composition which are in one way or
another impure-which draw from influences and sources outside of
the art music tradition and which have at their core a problematic
or ambiguous relationship to high and low cultural categories–are a
certain casualty of the closing of ranks around a few masterworks,
above reproach in their formal perfection and moral authority. As
an admirer of much recent music which might best be described as
“mongrel”, to borrow historian Anne Douglas’ useful term, I have
seen how the bunker mentality of establishment concert music
institutions has been a serious obstacle preventing a great deal of
compelling work from finding an audience.

To see how these attitudes play out in critical practice two recent
pieces by the New York Times most aware and perceptive critic
Anthony Tomassini are worth examining. A column of Nov 3, 1999
finds Tomassini taking aim at the recent practice of amplification in
opera halls. What is revealing about the column are not his
reasonable, if predictable, objections but rather his using the
occasion for a wholesale banishment of all forms of electronic
sound. He refers to the use of unamplified sound and natural
instruments as “a defining characteristic of classical music.” Concert
halls should function, according to him, as “virtual temples” where
“devotees worship natural” sound. More significant than the
liturgical form in which Tomassini couches his attack is the possibly
unintended collatoral targets it is directed at, namely, that in
banishing from the temple all music produced by electronic means,
he places beyond the pale a significant fraction of twentieth century
music including acknowledged masterpieces such as Messaien’s
Turangalila Symphony, Crumb’s Voice of the Whale, Davidovsky’s
Synchronisms, Stockhausen’s Gesang der Junglinge not to mention
numerous minor works by major composers such Harbison’s
Bermuda Triangle (for amplified cello, saxophone, and electric
organ) and Martin Bresnick’s Conspiracies (for flute and tape). It
would probably not disturb Tomassini that insodoing he also
consigns to the dustbin recent works by “downtown” composers
such as Michael Gordon and Glenn Branca, but it might give him
pause to consider that he is placing outside of the realm of “classical
music” the composers associated with the French spectralist school
(Kaiah Saariaho and Gerard Grisey, among others) whose work has
received a highly enthusiastic reception from establishment critics.
In the January 25 “critic’s notebook” column opera again provides
the pretext for similar puritanical rejectionism by Tomassini. This
time, however, it is not just purity of means but purity of style
which brings the critic to the barricades. All attempts at a synthesis
of the American musical theatre and European operatic traditions
have been failures, he claims. Furthermore such failures are
predictable owing to the “perils” which await composers “bluring
the line behind musicals and opera.” In supporting these dubious
propositions, he is forced to undertake a number of exercises of
twisted logic the most contorted of which is an attempt to find
grounds according to which Sondheim’s Sweeny Todd can be
construed as not “blurring the line” but entirely “true to the
Broadway tradition.” Its “spiky dissonances” and “musical
complexities,” qualities which are “defining characteristics” of
opera, according to Tommasini, are explained away, because while
sufficient to “engage an advanced college seminar in composition”
they are “submerged.” In particular, one dissonance “provides a
haunting harmonic nudge to (a) mournful melody, and makes a
telling (dramatic) point.” It does not take a musicologist to
recognize that this description could apply equally to the harmonic
practice of operatic composers from Mozart–even from Monteverdi-
-to Debussy. Rather than consigning Sondheim to the aesthetic
pigeonhole to which Tommassini consigns him, these practices, and
others, reveal him to be precisely the sort of line-blurrer that
Tommasini claims is doomed to failure.

The context for these general strictures against musical boundary
crossing is an attack on a single work which attempts such a
synthesis, John LaChiusa’s “Marie Christine.” In heaping invective
on “Marie Christine,” (“its words are lame,” “the rhythmic swing is
stiff,” “rather than sounding intricate, the music just seems
labored”) Tommasini accomplishes nothing other than to sabotage
his larger point. For insofar as each criticism is correct, the
possibility that a composer of the requisite skills making the attempt
might be successful increases further. Indeed, that the defects of
Marie Christine are apparently obvious leads one to believe that the
problem lies not in the conception of the work but in its execution.
It is not written in stone that those attempting to merge opera and
musical theatre must “lack a real melodic gift” or be “self-taught” or
that their “word-setting must be “faulty.” All the obvious
deficiencies in “Marie Christine” could be seen as reasons for
optimism that a compelling and sophisticated work of its general
type could be written by a composer prepared to negotiate the

These reviews display the underlying basis of criticisms of much
contemporary music undertaken in other pieces by Tomassini. It lies
behind Tomassini’s dismissive treatment of Steve Reich, a composer
who, in embracing vernacular styles and ethnic traditions has
fashioned distinctly impure works of undeniable profundity. Of
course, some composers are allowed occasional, furtive intercourse
with “the music of their youth,” indeed this is the subject of a
Tommasini piece from a year ago. But, as I noted in a letter taking
issue with the column, these are allowed only so long as the
composers carry appropriate academic credentials and only if the
infection has not spread too far into the actual body, heart and soul
of the works.

I should note that Tomassini’s form of puritanism is comparatively
mild by Times standards. The Times’ Cotton Mather seems to be
James Oesterreich, sure to brandish his hickory stick at the
introduction of any sign of levity or moral laxness into his hairshirt
musical culture. His recent attack on a lovely, if slightly
misproportioned work by the brilliant young composer Derek
Bermel is typical: Bermel is criticized for “developing bluesy notions
hardly worth a sideways glance,” a criticism which would have force
only if Oesterreich had given an indication in his previous reviews
that any “bluesy notion” is worth taking seriously by a composer.
The Times’ Paul Griffith is, of course, infamous among my
generation of composers through his characterization of us as
notable primarily for our insignificance (“Where are the Composers
under 50?”). That Griffith’s ignorance is selective is apparent from
his coverage of the five days of last year’s Bang on a Can festival, an
internationally known celebration of works by younger composers
which specializes in issuing a direct challenge to the orthodoxies for
which Griffith has served as a mouthpiece for three decades. That
Griffith regards as non-composers those who do not endorse his
catechism was indicated by his having ignored the entire festival
save the single concert devoted to the hermetic modernism of the
septuagenarian Iannis Xenakis. Finally, into this mix one must
include the Times ayatollah Bernard Holland, whose recent
jeremiads range from ruminations on music’s inability to compete in
profundity with the grunts of hippopotami, the squeals of hyenas
and the jabbering of baboons to increasingly bizarre fatwas holding
a “mediocre” generation of composers responsible for the
dispensing of musical “toxic waste.”

Confronted with this phalanx of reaction at the nation’s newspaper
of record, it is not surprising that many composers have given in to
more than the usual despair when they contemplate the hostility of
the musical present. While I find the increasing sense of resignation
and futility among composers troubling, I should make clear here,
however, that in reviewing these reviewers it is not my objective
here to strike back at critics who have subjected friends and
acquaintences (and myself on a few occasions) to a certain amount
of public discomfort. Rather my intention is to focus on the
underlying attitudes which make a climate of reaction predictable.
These attitudes are, I maintain, to some extent the disease for which
they claim to be the cure. In responding to a “crisis” which is partly
of its own making, the critical establishiment has reinforced concert
music’s status as the Blanche Dubois of artistic disciplines: its
sensibilities too delicate to escape unblemished from any contact
with the crass realities of our time, its traditions too refined to be
accessible to those who do not feel the call to “worship” at the
“temple of great music.” Spiritualism and bland moralism provide
weak cornerstones on which to construct a constituency for either
canonic masterpieces of for new music which has pretentions to
artistic, as opposed to commercial, value. Such foundations, as
Joseph Horowitz pointed out a decade ago in these pages, offer an
easy refuge for those whose low-impact engagement with
inoffensively performed warhorses is taken for an experience of
religious ecstasy but is nothing more than the satisfaction of yet
another commercially manufactured want, like a leather interior or
brie cheese. The sacralization of classical music also provides
orchestral P.R. departments with the fodder and encouragement for
some of the most offensive and cynical commercial hype foisted on
the public in recent years as what is being hyped is not just a
musical product but spritual and moral redemption through music.

If the critical establishment wants to be part of the solution and not
the problem, it needs to learn that the inherent strengths of the art
music tradition, ones which reside within the music itself and not in
its packaging, are, if properly nurtured, sufficient to ensure art
music’s presence–not as a mass market commodity, but as a living
testiment to artistic values which are themselves profoundly at odds
with and subversive to a culture drunk on consumption and
acquisitiveness. It is somewhat of a paradox that in losing faith in
the power of music as music, and by substituting for it a dimly
definable spiritual essence at its core critics are insuring its demise
as a viable adversarial presence within the culture.

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