Rush to Judgment: searching for Graupner

I can remember a few years ago when Elliott Carter's Night Fantasies was being performed and recorded simultaneously by four major pianists. Critics hailed the work as the greatest piano music since Ravel: it wasn't. Rather, it was the usual chromatic noodling that most of us endured through the 60's and 70's: what I would call GSM (generic serious music). This event has cemented in my mind the template for the usual hype surrounding whatever the critics deem "the next thing," whether it be a composer (presently Thomas Adès) or a work (remember the Gorecki Third Symphony?).

Ruthless promotion of pseudo artistic boomlets is not confined to the tiny world of classical music; in fact, it may have been grafted on from the world of television, with its fast-lane rush-to-judgment on sitcoms, thrillers, and other formulaic fare, which often dies an unnatural death after two or three shows. What is it about the modern audience that demands the erection of monuments to superheros without the luxury of historical distance? It might be enlightening to take a look at the rise of artists of substance in the past and compare that to the hysterical machinery of success that is often heaped on small shoulders and exiguous talent, or perhaps talent that never gets a chance to mature.

I think that the key lies in the logarithmic increase in the density of public information which accompanied perfection of technologically diverse means of instant communication: first newspapers, then radio and television with their later refinements, and finally more archival (through CD's and videotape) and truly interactive (internet) permanent, yet simultaneous communication.In general, information released by these media is, by definition, news; and, so defined, it runs counter in essential substance to the slow buildup of reputation that any emerging artist would acquire. Those less well acquainted with the classical music world could look at the endless parade of "new" movie stars, each jockeying for a top spot in the pecking order. In this arena, however, the fame is driven by boxoffice revenue and what I would call a "good fit" with a given comtemporary cultural archetype.

In contradistinction, the "Flavor of the Month" composers whose meteoric rise and equally dismal fall have attained a cyclical predictability, are not catapulted by a real, immediate contact with the audience, but rather through "handlers," who develop the images using tha paradigm of American political candidates, many of whom have no agenda, philosophy, or issue-driven motivation until AFTER they are publically visible. How then, is this change in the launch of new artists going to make any permanent impact on the repertoire? It is possible some some of yesterdays glamourboys (remember Easley Blackwood, Tyson Street, Jack Beeson?) will be rediscovered. That process is starting to occur: witness the current popularity of the works of David Diamond and other neoclassical Americanische dinosaurs, whose works smoldered in the embers of the pre-serial past.

We must also entertain the possibility that we have entered the era of disposable art. Since the rate at which taste changes has increased dramatically, what has become obscured is the possibility that nothing lasts: art works are like temporary scientific theories. They cannot speak to the ages and are in a constant state of superannuation. It would be easy to point to the template of contemporary technology in which nothing remains state of the arts for more than a few weeks as the framework for artistic judgment. It is also possible that is the mad dash to discover the next J.S. Bach we are ignoring the Christoph Graupners of the world. I can hear many of you asking: who the ---- is Graupner? It turns out that he beat out J.S. Bach for the Leipzig job that both sought and it was only by a fluke that Bach landed the post. "Surely, Graupner must have been a great composer!." On the contrary, he was the appropriate choice for the time and place. Cultural propriety held sway over historical vision. Many of Bach's works were too difficult to understand and could only be played by him. The place of music at that time did not allow for such sustained elitism. Ergo: Graupner was the better choice.

Today we are presented boatloads of Graupners, and that would not be so devastating. However, they are introduced as Bachs; and, of course, they cannot fulfill that master's consistent excellence. If we keep assigning the master/masterpiece designation to the Graupners, we will never recognize a Bach when that level of artist comes along. It is also possible an any visionary artist may be out of step with contemporary society, further obfuscating the selection process. Perhaps we should accept the fact that we have become a community of groupies who scavenge the remains of fleeting fame from sacrificial dupes who are selected on random criteria. We are really like vampires feeding vicariously on the illusion of prominence. That is why O.J Simpson and Clarence Thomas fulfill the same purpose: they are like gladiators who triumph or fail for the pleasure of the crowd. If ever there was a time for the objectifying mirror of historical distance, it is now.

Paul Reale, June, 2000.