On the Recent Activities of Mario Davidovsky

One year ago, Mario Davidovsky accepted a position at Harvard
University, bringing to a close his tenure as Fritz Reiner Professor of
Music at Columbia where he had been serving since the early sixties.
While Davidovsky has appropriately been identified with the
academy, it would be a mistake to assume that his influence does
not extend much further. Numerous institutional affiliations
including seats on various foundations boards and the artistic
directorships of several performance groups have given Davidovsky
a considerable measure of control over the higher profile new music
series and ensembles in New York. By extension his tastes have done
much to determine what the public identifies as the basic sound of
contemporary music and for this reason, much general commentary
on the state of contemporary music is implicitly directed at
Davidovsky’s aesthetic agenda. However, owing to the “stealth”
nature of Davidovsky’s activities (the composition of these boards is
often not made public, and their deliberations, never) and his
preferred mode of operation (covert), commentators are not aware
that what they are responding to in new music programming is in
fact, Davidovsky’s perspective on what constitutes “serious”
composition which, even in comparison to his ideological cohorts is
a narrow one.

It might seem odd, particularly to Europeans, that a composer would
go out of his way to acquire so many bureaucratic responsibilities
which could only impinge on the time needed to function as one of
America’s most in demand composers. What explains this
enthusiastic embrace of what many artists would consider odious is
the fact that Davidovsky has bigger fish to fry than obtaining
performances of his own work. Even among the institutional
academic modernist community Davidovsky is known for a hard
line with respect to deviance from the traditional modernist canon
and he will pursue what he sees as deviance with an unrelenting
zeal. Furthermore, he regards himself as a lone voice in the
wilderness standing up for virtue in the face of an onslaught from
all manner of musical degeneracy, barbarism and immorality.
A profile in last February’s New York Times is revealing in these
respects. According to the article, Davidovsky “knows what he likes
and he doesn’t like much.”

Surprisingly, given his long residence in academia, the basic principle underlying Davidovsky’s catholic
tastes is strikingly anti-intellectual: what he doesn’t like is not bad
music per se but what he regards as bad kinds of music such as
“minimalism” or “neo-Romanticism.” Having consigned these to the
flames, Davidovsky is spared the trouble of actually developing
standards for evaluating musical quality rather than simply
classifying pieces according their musical “camp.” Davidovsky is
clearly neither interested in nor prepared to deal with sticky but
interesting problems which arise when attempts are made to relate
musical style and musical substance. Rather he prefers ad hominem
attacks on composers’ “ethics” and “compositional responsibility”
which he takes to be intimately connected not with musical quality,
craft, or seriousness of intention, but trivially with the musical style
of which a given piece is representative. Accordingly, this means
that those working within Davidovsky’s approved genre, namely,
academic modernism, are attempting, when successful, to advance a
“spiritual dimension . . in striv(ing) after hard-won and
transcendent human excellence.” Those laboring within other
genres, no matter how talented or capable, are derided as
“derivative and unimaginative.” By not “being worthy of (their)
heritage” these artists are accused by “the charming gadfly”
Davidovsky of “artistic immorality.”

Two other aspects of this diatribe disguised as a puff piece also
deserve mention here, not so much for the light they shed on the
substance of Davidovsky’s beliefs, but for tactics he will make use of
in acting on them. One is the Stalinist omission of the names of the
objects of his wrath leaving all potential deviants in fear of their
ultimate punishment: a hoped-for commission will disappear, an
academic job interview will mysteriously vanish, or tenure will be
denied. Second, in a profile which ostensibly celebrates a thirty
year tenure, many spent as chairman of his academic department,
Davidovsky makes no reference to the current state of Columbia
program which he played a decisive role in building up. The
impression left is that even his hand-picked successors have “gone
wet” and cannot be trusted to carry out his “rigorous” legacy. The
message is that those who expect to benefit from Davidovsky’s
largesse in the future will toe the line with even greater vigilance.

As the article demonstrates, Davidovsky is passionate about what he
believes and one senses from his inflammatory rhetoric that he will
take no prisoners in pursuing his aesthetic agenda. However, the
article is misleading in portraying Davidovsky as “a mischievous
iconoclast” whose chosen form of musical expression “is lost or
surviving in very small quantities” on the periphery of New York’s
new music community. In fact, Davidovsky influence is as decisive
as the music which he champions is pervasive. And if Davidovsky
bemoans the “very small quantities” of new music performances
which meet his specifications, he only has himself to blame. As we
shall see, much of the most visible new music performed in New
York is a result of Davidovsky’s direct or indirect connivance. And,
more importantly, much new music which is consigned to the
margins, performed by unknown ensembles in obscure
performance spaces, is often relegated to that status because of
Davidovsky’s (and his compatriot’s) worm’s eye view of what
constitutes artistic seriousness.

As a minor player on Davidovsky’s hit-list, I have apparent personal
experience with the effects of Davidovsky’s efforts to stifle that
which he does not want to hear. I say apparent because the covert
nature of Davidovsky’s influence makes it generally impossible to
know that he has struck. However, I have it on good authority that
on the rare occasions when my head has popped up in his presence,
he has taken the trouble to chop it off. For example, very recently
my work was rejected a commission by a foundation on which
Davidovsky is a board member. This is not uncommon for even the
most prominent composers. What was less usual was, according to a
participant, that my submission was simply passed over without
being listened to, Davidovsky having led the consensus that my
work was not within the officially approved “tradition” and not to
be taken seriously. It is not paranoid to suspect that having been
tarred with this brush, my scores and tapes have been and will be
similarly treated by committees on which Davidovsky is not

I have no idea how often Davidovsky’s invisible hand has had an
effect on my career in a similarly covert fashion. However, on
another occasion Davidovsky slipped up and the stiletto left more of
a scar than he was intending. This occurred at the Wellesley
Composers’ Conference to which I received a fellowship thanks to
one of the guest composers that year, John Harbison. Davidovsky
tolerated my presence for the two weeks, though his disapproval of
my string quartet was made apparent in his contemptuous reference
to the “boooogie wooogie” bass line of the finale movement.
Unfortunately for Davidovsky, the Conference offers a commission
for one of the composing fellows and this commission is decided on
by a committee drawn from the amateur chamber music players
who subsidize the conference in exchange for receiving coachings
from the players in residence. The committee, according to one of
the members, voted unanimously to award me the commission for
the following year. Davidovsky was outraged at the choice, though I
don’t imagine he was surprised. My quartet, somewhat “tonal” and
formally traditional, also bore the influence of various vernacular
musics. These characteristics made the piece at least minimally
comprehensible, especially in comparison to the “cognitive opacity”
(to use Fred Lerdahl’s term) of much of what was offered up by the
officially approved composers at the conference. Responding to
these same characteristics, Davidovsky regarded the piece as a
shameless capitulation to the debased impulses of the musical mob,
probably “made more to fit a market than to continue ideas from
the tradition.” As director of the conference, he therefore felt
impelled to act unilaterally in reversing the committee’s
irresponsible decision, awarding the commission instead to a
composer who no doubt “strive(s) after hard-won and transcendent
human excellence” and aspires to the highest “spiritual and
redemptive” values.

While the $5,000 commission would have been appreciated, this is,
of course, a trivial matter and barely constitutes a blip on the screen
on the larger musical picture. I mention it here because it
demonstrates the lengths to which Davidovsky will go to stamp out
musical expressions which he regards as ideologically suspect and
this is by no means the only story of this type which has been
circulated. Furthermore, for those who have gotten as far as the
Wellesley Composers Conference one can assume many more who
were discouraged by Davidovsky or his ideological compatriots
installed at academic satellites throughout the country at much
earlier stages, even before their music ever managed to see the light
of day.

A postscript to this affair reveals Davidovsky’s attitude in even
starker relief: some years later, having confirmed the accuracy of
my account, an acquaintance had occasion to ask Davidovsky for his
version of events. He asked Davidovsky directly whether he went
over the committee’s head to deny me the commission. “Of course I
did! We are not in the business of promoting that sort of music.” was
Davidovsky enthusiastic response. More tellingly, Davidovsky
seemed surprised that his interlocutor was at all taken aback by his
behavior. Davidovsky’s Manichaean musical world view takes for
granted a state of perpetual total war between where both sides will
take any advantage in advancing their righteous ends. For
Davidovsky, marginally unethical behavior in the service of “the
good” is not just necessary, but an opportunity to be relished. Such
is the impression left by these sorts of actions, of which my case is
by no means an isolated example.

The flip side of Davidovsky purging of those whom he regards as
ideologically suspect is his energetic, though always provisional
advocacy of those composers who have accepted his rules of the
game. To these winners go a particular set of spoils and here it is
worth reiterating that Davidovsky’s influence extends far beyond
the academic circles with which he tends to be associated. For
example, Davidovsky’s advocacy is known to be decisive for
obtaining the Guggenheim fellowship, one of the few grants which
provides composers with a full year’s support so that they may
devote themselves full time to composition. Another is the
Koussevitsky foundation which provides several commissions for
composers each year and on which board Davidovsky serves, along
with other like minded “senior figures.” Then there is the American
Academy of Arts and which disburses cash awards, commissions and
recording grants. Davidovsky routinely sponsors several loyalists
for these, as well. Then there are residencies at the Atlantic Center
and Tanglewood to which Davidovsky has brought of some of his
chosen students. Finally, there is the Wellesley Composer’s
Conference referred to earlier where a crack New York ensemble
somehow is recruited to perform works by a carefully selected group
in addition to coaching amateur chamber ensembles for ridiculously
paltry compensation.

These commissions, awards, fellowships and performance
opportunities constitute the Davidovsky pork-barrel. Then there is
the Davidovsky patronage network which includes two wings: a
national wing comprising a far flung though mercifully diminishing
coterie of former students at academic music programs who attempt
to obtain a tenureable professional profile largely by means of the
pork doled out from the above list. Secondly, a local wing which
includes positions in the Columbia-Princeton electronic music
studio, administrative positions at the Reiner Center and the Miller
Theater, and will include many others now that Davidovsky has
expanded his power base to Harvard. In terms of influence, the
local New York wing is arguably more significant, as these positions
provide a means for composers to live and work in what is still the
world’s musical center and lobby for the performance of their works
by the few remaining ensembles which perform contemporary
works. The shear mass of music produced and lobbied for by these
approved composers, and, when pressure is successfully exercised,
by their presence on high profile New York concert programs,
constitutes an additional on-going component of Davidovsky’s
aesthetic legacy. Furthermore, by petty and not so petty
administrative decisions in their official capacities these loyalists
can and do make life easy or difficult for those who either abide by
Davidovsky’s sanctioned path, or fail to.

Finally there is Davidovsky’s influence on performing organizations
and concert series through his seat on the boards of Speculum
Musicae, the Riverside Symphony, and Parnassus, among others.
How Davidovsky exerts his influence on these organizations is
unclear however, the programming of these ensembles bears the
distinct claw mark of his veto power if not his active participation.
Davidovsky’s most recent large scale enterprise is “the Consortium”
whose charmless, corporate-style logo and publicity materials
accurately reflect the faceless, anonymity of much of the alleged
music performed under its auspices, as does its overwhelmingly
white, male board of directors and stable of composers. Financed by
a pooling of grants from the Ditson Fund, the Fromm Foundation,
the Mellon Fund, the Reiner Center along with “special assistance”
from Columbia’s Miller Theater (obtained through the Davidovsky
appointed Miller Theater director Mike Ross), the Consortium
concerts feature ensembles performing works by appropriately
credentialed composers a high fraction of them former and present
Davidovsky students. With the expansion of the empire northward,
the performances take place at Paine Hall on the Harvard campus in
addition to at Davidovsky’s former seat of power, at Columbia.
The cumulative effect of Davidovsky energetic, some might say
fanatical pursuit of musical power is that which has been noted
earlier: an enforced and stultifying conformity which is
paradoxically virtually invisible because of its pervasiveness.
Unfortunately, despite the expensive flyers and programs, the
excellence of the performances, the well appointed venues, all of
which result from Davidovsky’s access to huge amounts of funding,
concerts of the music which Davidovsky advocates are invariably
exceedingly joyless affairs bearing a much closer relationship to
religious services than musical events. And how could it be
otherwise? Despite the Times’ profile’s attempt to point out
Davidovsky’s humor and warmth, the personality which is revealed
in the music he supports (though, interestingly, much less so in the
music he creates) is consistent with grimness and censoriousness of
his stated institutional agenda. While the critical establishment has
been cajoled or cowed into a respectful passivity, word has long
since gotten out to audiences which avoid concerts having any hint
of the “uptown” stamp of approval like a bout of flu. Attendance is,
as is usual at such establishment “contemporary music” events,
limited almost exclusively to close acquaintances of the composers
and it is difficult for even its strongest adherents to escape the
impression that Davidovsky’s is a dying musical culture. That this
culture can continue to exist is itself a testimony to a facet of
Davidovsky’s organizational genius: his ability to convince
administrators that the overwhelming cultural significance of such
events compensates for the bitter medicine of their lack of economic
viability and the general tedium induced by them even among the
most specialized audiences. One gets the impression, however, that
this pseudo-Adornoesque argument is becoming increasingly
untenable even within the elite circles which ought to form the
natural constituency for the music of Davidovsky and his hand
picked protégés. I welcome its demise though I confess to being
highly skeptical and more than a little fearful of the market-oriented
anarchy which the breakdown of Davidovsky’s Stalinist culture
portends, and for which it will bear ultimate responsibility.

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