Bare ruin’d choirs, where late the sweet birds sang.
—Shakespeare, Sonnet 73
By now, musicians and music lovers alike are aware that few compositions of enduring value have been produced in the last forty years or so. They are further aware that those which seem to have lasted—the works, for example, of composers as different as Sergei Prokofiev and Dmitri Shostakovich in Russia and Aaron Copland and Samuel Barber in America—have been written by artists whose personalities and styles were formed as long ago as World War I and the ensuing two decades. Of more recent contributions to the permanent repertory, we now see nothing.
Thus, whether one looks at orchestra concerts, solo and chamber music recitals, or operatic productions, one discovers a concentration on pre-World War II repertory, with a strong favoritism shown for the music from Bach to Tchaikowsky. It is not that music by composers coming to maturity after World War II has not been played. On the contrary, it has been tried everywhere, and everywhere it has been found wanting. Indeed, so universally negative has the verdict been on post-1945 music that even the good and important works written in this period have been unfairly tarred with the general failure.
I do not claim originality for what I have just said. The enemies of the new music are legion, and even number important critics among their ranks. What is striking, however, is that an awareness of the deplorable state of musical affairs has gradually been creeping into the discussions of those responsible for the situation in the first place: the composers, and their admirers, who together had earlier claimed that the only way to creative salvation was the way of the new.
One of the more striking signs of this self-doubt among the once-confident is Trackings, a recent collection of interviews with 26 composers assembled by the American conductor Richard Dufallo.1 From 1972 to 1979, Dufallo was the director of the 20th-century music series at the Juilliard School in New York. More directly relevant to Trackings, from 1970 to 1985 he was artistic director of the Aspen Music Festival’s Conference on Contemporary Music. It is largely from among the composers he invited to Aspen in this fifteen-year period that he has selected his interviewees, and it is clear from his own autobiographical reminiscences, with which the book is generously supplied, that he experienced the opportunities for presenting new music there as exciting and (until the Aspen Festival’s internecine squabbles of the mid 1980’s) uniquely rewarding.
I myself witnessed much of what Dufallo describes. My own years as a faculty artist at the Aspen Music Festival matched his closely, and I appeared in the Conference on Contemporary Music as a piano soloist under Dufallo’s direction, playing with him Igor Stravinsky’s Concerto for Piano and Wind Orchestra. I also appeared on three other occasions as a soloist in Aspen concerts connected with the conference, playing Elliott Carter’s Piano Concerto with Gerard Schwarz, William Schuman’s Piano Concerto with Varujan Kojian, and Olivier Messiaen’s Oiseaux exotiques with Barry Jekowsky.
In the early years of Dufallo’s tenure in Aspen I attended many, if not most, of his concerts. As time passed, however, I became affected at these concerts by a curious combination of boredom and irritation, and at the end I must admit that I had quite given up on what Dufallo was trying to do in Aspen.
What he was trying to do was nothing less than provide a conspectus of what today would be called “cutting-edge” musical life. Toward this end he invited to Aspen (and now, in Trackings, he interviews) such composers from both sides of the Atlantic as Gilbert Amy, Earle Brown, Elliott Carter, George Crumb, Peter Maxwell Davies, David Del Tredici, Jacob Druckman, Witold Lutoslawski, Krzysztof Penderecki, Bernard Rands, Aribert Reimann, George Rochberg, Peter Schat, Michael Tippett, Richard Wernick, and Iannis Xenakis. In a limited bow to more traditional music of American origin, Dufallo also brought to Aspen (and interviews in his book) Aaron Copland, Ned Rorem, and William Schuman. In addition, Trackings contains interviews with some true avant-garde heavyweights who never made it to Aspen: Pierre Boulez, John Cage, Friedrich Cerha, Lukas Foss, Mauricio Kagel, Gyorgy Ligeti, and Karlheinz Stockhausen.
It would be easy to quibble with Dufallo’s list. Where, if it is meant to be truly inclusive, are such important American composers as David Diamond and Hugo Weisgall? And if there is a particular notion of music being advocated here, just what are masters of an older ideal of American music like Copland, Rorem, and Schuman doing in this company of avantgardists? These reservations aside, however, Dufallo has managed to get down the words of just about everyone in America and Europe who made the new music what it was through the 1960’s and up until the irruption in the early 70’s of post-modern minimalism in the work of Terry Riley, Steve Reich, and Philip Glass. Of these later developments he has little of significance to say.
Dufallo’s cutoff, unwelcome though it undoubtedly will be to the freshest fellow-travelers of the new sounds, makes historical sense. By the beginning ot the 1970’s, the most significant post-World War II musical developments had been born and had reached maturity. At the center of these developments was an unholy obsession with the combination of freedom and order: the desire at one and the same time to be free in composition from all previous constraints of traditional practice and experience, and to control through intellectual means every facet of the music being written. The struggle between those two principles was at no point a fight to win an audience, whether sophisticated or otherwise. It was instead a battle between composers for the hearts and minds of their colleagues, a battle fought between the followers of John Cage and Anton Webern. The conflict was, it is true, not unprecedented: behind Cage and Webern stood the doughty figures of (for Cage) Erik Satie and the Dadaists, and (for Webern) Arnold Schoenberg.
Despite all the bitterness after 1945 between these rival schools of compositional thought, not everything was in dispute. Whether an avant-garde composer chose freedom or order, or some fantastic personal mixture, one point was agreed upon: all means of music-making, very much including at the one end primitive noisemakers and at the other the most advanced developments of electronic technology, were not only to be allowed, but greatly to be encouraged.
This set of intellectual choices, based on the will of the artist rather than the satisfaction of an audience, was at the heart of the contemporary musical scene Dufallo chose to represent not merely in his work in Aspen, but in his entire career as a conductor. After serving an apprenticeship with the composer, conductor, and pianist Lukas Foss in Los Angeles and Buffalo, Dufallo decided by 1960 to stake out a musical position of his own. He puts this decision in terms curiously reminiscent of the collecting scene in the visual arts as we have known it in the last three decades: “I felt as though previously, I had only been looking in the ‘store window.’ Now was the moment to go in and ‘buy’ something for myself.” And for Dufallo, “buying” musical phenomena quite properly meant playing them every chance he got.
Though the prevailing quality Dufallo brings to his dealings with his chosen composers is a kind of boyish enthusiasm, there is remarkably little evidence of such enthusiasm, boyish or otherwise, in what his composers have to tell him. Some of them do look back with fondness on the world that shaped what Dufallo perhaps overmuch refers to as their “musical genetic code.” For example, the American composer Earle Brown, a writer of “open-form” works in which performers choose, within rather wide limits, what will actually be played, reflects on Darmstadt, the German locus classicus of late 1950’s avant-garde music: “I don’t know of any place in which so many significant works and/or aesthetic attitudes were allowed to flower and mix.” On the other hand, Pierre Boulez, currently the director of the French government’s new-music apparat, says: “The universe of Darmstadt lasted ten years for me. And now, who cares?”
Boulez, at least, is still on the avant-garde bandwagon: he evinces much joy in the possibilities now made available by recent electronic developments in the real-time manipulation of musical sounds during performances themselves. But for other composers in Trackings—one is tempted to say the majority—the legacy of the 1950’s and 1960’s is something to be taken seriously, and to be condemned. For the American David Del Tredici, known in recent years for his gigantic (many would call them wildly overblown) tone-poems based on the Alice stories of Lewis Carroll, serialism, the ideology on which post-World War II musical order was founded, has left a ruin in its wake:
[I]f you write something atonal, dissonant, chance-filled, you can often get away with murder. It’s more difficult to separate the good from the bad; standards are not quite so clear. But if it’s tonal, there’s just too much good music people know and love.
One of the most interesting of Dufallo’s interviews is with the Dutch composer Peter Schat, who wrote a hokey and would-be sensationalist opera Houdini, presented by Dufallo in Aspen in 1979. For Schat, Schoenberg’s twelve-tone theory, in which no note could be repeated until all the others had been sounded, was both a reaction to political fascism and a kind of musical socialism:
[I]t was not a law that is inside the music. It was a law that was inside the numbers. You count. Thou shalt count! That is the law of Schoenberg. That is not a musical law, but it is a law. And the whole of serialism came from that law: thou shalt count. The tones, the rhythms, the durations, the timbres, what have you. Thou shalt count. And do it in the computer, also. That’s not musical. And that’s the whole mistake of serialism. Schoenberg’s idea of dodecaphony—that all tones have equal rights, that they must have equal opportunities—that is a stupid idea! Can you believe it? . . . Incredible! That is Socialism, and we know Socialism does not work.
It cannot be sufficiently stressed that Trackings is not in any sense a testimonial to the power of beauty in music. On the evidence of this book, it is not the search for beauty that moves most contemporary composers (or a conductor like Dufallo who plays them), for beauty is on this occasion, as always, an absent guest at the avant-garde music table. Under these conditions, the very process of making music becomes a struggle, perhaps even an alienated struggle. This certainly seems to account for the sad answer the Greek composer Iannis Xenakis, a writer of music of stupefying thickness and turgidity, gives to Dufallo’s not unreasonable question, “Why do you compose?”
I compose because . . . well, I could have done other things in my life, too. I was interested in many things. But then finally I decided to do music, essentially. And I decided to do that because I thought I would be less unhappy doing music than doing other things. That’s it. There is no other reason.
But if Trackings is not a testimonial to the power of beauty, it is surely a testimonial to the power of ideas. The influence of Schoenberg on these composers, an influence that hangs heavy over them, even when they reject it, does not come from the sound of his music, but from the suggestive force of his thinking. And what is true in the case of Schoenberg is true for the role of thought in general. The American composer George Rochberg, a serialist in the early stages of his career but an anti-serialist for many years now, describes what he wants from the work of others: “I need ideas. What draws me to a composer, what draws me to a piece, is the nature of the ideas.” For another of Dufallo’s composers, the Austrian Friedrich Cerha (who completed the unfinished Act III of Alban Berg’s opera Lulu), important ideas need not even be musical; Cerha looks to the cyberneticist Norbert Wiener for insights into musical systems.
If there is a prevailing tone to be discerned in this long book, it is one of quiet creative desperation. However, this tone never receives full expression, for professional optimism always keeps breaking in. When Dufallo attempts to raise the issue with the German composer Aribert Reimann, who has written some of the most depressing music of our time (including a setting of Shakespeare’s King Lear), Reimann trivializes the issue:
Duffalo: It’s interesting to hear you be so confident about the pieces you are writing. I have been speaking to a number of composers; and I must say many of them are in a crisis. The rejection and self-criticism that is going on in composers today is really quite severe. You are not in a crisis?
Reimann: I was, in the first four months of the year. I thought I would never compose again. . . . And then something happened in my life and I started very timidly (vorsichtig) in April to compose again.
It is difficult not to have some sympathy for the defiance with which Dufallo continues throughout Trackings to defend the work of his favored composers: “By now, there are composers who deserve one-man shows. These are our 20th-century classicists. They represent our tradition, and we don’t have any other.” But it simply will not do to say that we must accept the post-1945 tradition because we have no other. For we do have another musical tradition. Musicians and audiences alike love that tradition, which goes back even before Bach and continues not just through Mozart and Beethoven and their immediate descendants but extends into a wide range of 20th-century music stretching from Bartok and Stravinsky to Prokofiev, Shostakovich, and Copland. Let me repeat: this is music that musicians want to play and audiences want to hear.
As for the post-1945 tradition—the avant-garde so zealously advocated by Dufallo—it has not only failed but has been seen to have failed. Insofar as Dufallo’s composers recognize this, they seem to ascribe it to social causes. As with all such general assignments of responsibility, blaming society has the predictable result of absolving individuals—in this case individual composers—from responsibility.
Thus, the French composer Gilbert Amy, a former disciple of Boulez, finds his style cramped by petroleum shortages and associated phenomena:
I’m sure that an economic analysis would be a good one to make, because modernity really belongs to the prosperous years. Nineteen seventy-three was the year of the first oil crisis and recession, and that started a big decline in the arts. Economy and the arts are closely related, but one must consider that the economic issues are in the first rank. All of music is economically based: the orchestra, the star system, the size of the orchestra, the number of rehearsals. Everything is against adventure!
For Elliott Carter, renowned for writing music so complicated that even sophisticated listeners can discover little in it to comprehend, post-1945 music only mirrors conditions in the society from which it springs. When Dufallo asks him why his music changed after World War II, from what I would call a kind of Coplandesque Americanism to its later complexity, Carter replies:
There’s a long London Weekend TV show about this. . . . A camera crew came here to this house and took pictures. And in the end, the producer, Alan Benson, said, “You made it perfectly clear that when the war was over, nothing really stopped and nothing had been changed; that a state of anxiety remained in the society. The end of the war was not the end of the situation.” And he said that explained why the music changed so much. We had hoped for a new society and a new world emerging and suddenly realized that it wasn’t going to happen.
An unhappy society, then, makes for unhappy composers, and unhappy composers write unhappy music. Lacking in the logical chain, alas, is its final deduction: unhappy music makes for unhappy audiences.
This line of thought immediately raises several questions. What if Carter’s argument, including the conclusion I have drawn from it, is correct? What if audiences do in fact sense the chaotic realities of society, and the personal sufferings of composers, that lie behind so much of postwar music? What if audiences do want to look back—or rather hear back—to what they perceive as a better time and a better world? What if audiences do not want to accept the music of even those composers who, like Del Tredici, are trying to supply them with what might be called a new old music?
The answers to these questions provide no good news for contemporary composers. Audiences are indeed quick to sense the nature of the world out of which art comes. Of course they sometimes tend to idealize the past, as do we all. But they can hardly be blamed for picking out the best features of the past and cleaving to the art which makes those features vivid today. Great music, even when it is scarcely optimistic in programmatic content, does evoke attributes—love, justice, and order, to name just a few—that we wish to transfer from the past to the present. The very idea of the finished work of musical art, shapely, beautiful, and perfect, in itself powerfully suggests the possibility of a better world.
There is a profusion of such works of musical art. The great composers—one thinks immediately of Bach, Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, and Brahms—were inexhaustibly prolific. And there were many composers, just slightly below this exalted rank, who also left us a stream of marvelous compositions. Indeed, a lifetime is too short to do more than sample the great musical repertory of the past. It is obvious, then, that for our musical satisfaction, we do not need new music.
However, living composers, now as always, can hardly feel content with this state of affairs: hang the past, they say, and get on with the present. So far as they are concerned, audiences do not have a right to choose the past. Audiences must support—and even love—new music not because it is great but because it is new, not on grounds of art but on grounds of contemporaneity in and of itself.
Richard Dufallo and his composers thus ultimately come to us not as givers of art or even of wisdom, but as zealous crusaders for the artistic and intellectual lives they have chosen to live. They ask for much, but it is the judgment of the world in which they must swim that they have given little. As time passes, fewer and fewer will be found to reverse that harsh judgment.
1 Oxford University Press, 418 pp., $35.00.
Where the New Music Went Wrong
Bare ruin'd choirs, where late the sweet birds sang. —Shakespeare, Sonnet 73
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