Are We in the Same Business as Mozart?

To revisit the past in the present is patently impossible, which is why so called postmodern neoromantic composition is doomed to fail. Any artist must write from firsthand experience, and that experience must then extapolate to general human experience. I am no fan of atonal, minimalist, soundmass, or any orthodoxy, but I realize that the existence of these "religions" implies that the real task of the composer of music may have changed in the minds of many contemporary artists.

Initially, I merely chided those who would mistake art for research, but now I must take issue with any composer that thinks that the premises for writing that are embodied in the music of the greatest masters of the past have changed. The most powerful weapon a composer has is to convert real time into relative time: that means that we seize the complete attention of the listener and direct the complete emotional environment for the duration of the piece. After its over there should be some kind of Aristolelian catharsis, meaning we remember specific things about the piece (try "tunes"). That is why people listen to Mozart. Any composer who ducks this challenge is merely admitting a lack of sufficient talent to engage the listener.

We have a compelling paradigm in the life work of Picasso who, after flirting with cubism, reentered the symbology of recognizable objects (notice, I am not saying representational art). Human nature has not changed that much in 100,000 years; and an artist must touch those emotional mechanisms that have been in place for that time. The emotional release in an artwork reprsents an intensification of real emotional responses whic have been structured in the organized artifice of any work. Just as actors do not make up the lines as they go along, yet we are drawn into a pseudo scene of real life in a play. In music things are more complex, because of the lack of human scale (in architecture that would mean that doorways and windows make sense in terms of how people move through the space).

When a composer chooses musical materials which in themselves are boring and needlessly bizarre for the sake of novelty, then the total musical experience will be compromised. The experimentalism of the twentieth century, fuelled by technology has created a pseudo-valid public art (like the gigantic paintings in contemporary museums that are significant only because of their size). As a listener, I want memorable musical ideas, specific melodies with a specific life of their own. I could not care less about the style or method of composition (reading about a Milton Babbitt composition really is the experience, since the details elaborated in the article are not recognizable on any level); but, I am vitally concerned that the piece somehow change the way I look at the world.

Of all the music written by the 50,000 self-styled living composers in the US I can think of fewer than three or four works by any of them that have even remotely moved me. The blame for such large scale failure (I am not holding up my judgment as sacrosanct: the inability of just about all these charlatans to get more than one performance is enough proof) probably rests on the disappearance of any tradition, such as was handed to generation after generation of Baroque Kapellmeister, or even Tin Pan Alley tunesmith (yes, the pop scene stinks also). The second error is that most composers are not good performers, so the experience of "selling" the goods is unknown to them. The third error is a worship of the score: that is why all the fancy notation was developed. The score is mere a set of performance directions: nothing more. The greatest looking score in the world might be an opaque mess with no anchor in the world of real sound.

It is my fondest wish that all commissions disappear, that university posts for composers be converted to posts for theory teachers and nothing more, that groups for new music be disbanded, and that the resource of performers, who are probably the best in history, be utilized according to the judgment of those performers. Let the bad music die a natural death. and let the bad composers have no branch to hang on to, surviving in the hothouses of the academy (and, remember, there are more academies than just the university). It is time for a little social Darwinism: I would like to see the government pay these carpetbaggers NOT to compose (a kind of musical soil bank).

The prearranged approval of small coteries of afficionados of musical Religion X does not substitute for the honest reaction of the average concertgoer who listens to classical music. The suffiness of this audience has been nurtured on the decay of good new music, and it is now the task of composers to win those people back. In the past, most concert programs consisted of mostly new pieces: now we have standard repertoire to sustain us. The art needs and demands solid works of great beauty that can speak to human nature. That can be Samuel Barber or Edgard Varèse, but not pipsqueeks like the poorly trained, passionless, and generally boring lot that has only the ability to waste the audience's time.

P.R., November 30, 1996.