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Who’s Afraid of the Avant-Garde?’: An Exchange

In response to:

Who's Afraid of the Avant-Garde? from the May 14, 1998 issue

To the Editors:

Charles Rosen’s powers of logic may far outstrip Lloyd Webber’s [NYR, May 14], but I wonder whether the cellist may, in his groping and muddled way, have put his finger on something that Rosen misses.

Rosen calls on history to support his view that “it is the art that is tough and that resists immediate appreciation that has the best chance of enduring and returning.” But audiences have to make their judgments in the here and now, without the benefit of hindsight. That being so, the only thing they have to guide them is their taste. To go against their spontaneous response to the music out of deference to some imagined validation of posterity—which may turn out, in the fullness of time, to be decisively withheld—would be a particularly pernicious form of intellectual dishonesty. And yet this form of dishonesty is a constant temptation in an age where taste has become so fragmented and deranged.

Rosen insists that “taste is a matter of will, of social and moral decisions,” a view which confirms me in my impression that Rosen is an eighteenth-century homme de lettres somehow born into the wrong century. For him taste is not the spontaneous expression of untutored appetite: it is the training and elucidation of that appetite into something that has a rational and moral justification. But that kind of taste can only come into being in a unified culture, where the spontaneous promptings of appetite attach naturally to those things that educated taste approves of. In the baffling cultural melting pot we now live in, taste is bound to shrink to the notion of appetite, thereby robbing it of authority. And when taste lacks authority, other things—fashion, ideology—rush in to supply it. So we get that pernicious notion of contemporary music as a “cause,” which breaks the vital link between genuine appetite and moral commitment. The value of individual pieces now owes nothing to the way they sound, or whether that sound holds any spontaneous appeal, but solely to the fact that they are members of this ideologically privileged class of music. I suspect Sir William Glock, that great promoter of contemporary music at the BBC, was more wedded to the idea of contemporary music than contemporary music itself. Even those closest to him found it hard to discover which, if any, of the modernist pieces he promoted he actually liked. In this cultural climate, Ned Rorem’s notion that people may pretend to an enthusiasm in Elliott Carter that they don’t actually feel—an idea dismissed by Rosen as “loony”—does not seem so absurd after all.

Ivan Hewett
BBCRadio 3
London, England

To the Editors:

I must take issue with Charles Rosen’s characterization of the mid-century musical modernists as “the avant-garde.” This music is fifty years old already. Rosen rightly dismisses those ignorant listeners who are afraid of the demanding, often dour and astringent, modernist literature. Rosen ignores, however, the intelligent critique of the mid-century composers which is embodied in the music of the baby-boom composers (such as David Lang, Jeffrey Mumford, Chen Yi, Juliet Palmer). Just because this newest music—which does sell tickets and CDs—is sometimes sexy, amplified, aggressive, wild, playful, or enjoyable on first hearing, does not mean that it isn’t also sometimes intelligent, important, or increasingly interesting with each listening. Who’s afraid of the avant-garde?—Rosen?

Jessica Krash
Department of Music
George Washington University
Washington, D.C.

Charles Rosen replies:

A close friend of Ned Rorem has informed us that the remark about Elliott Carter was “harmless fun,” a “whimsical jibe” to twit Andrew Porter for “his unabashed championing of the music of Elliott Carter.” I only quoted it because there is, indeed, among those who detest difficult contemporary music an irrational belief that it is impossible to like it—largely because they are at a loss to conceive how anybody can find any pleasure in it. Ivan Hewett is a very distinguished and intelligent musician, but his “spontaneous expression of untutored appetite” is a pure fiction: it does not exist. There are, indeed, immediate reactions, but they have all been tutored and conditioned by the culture in which we live, however baffling its lack of unity may be. We all judge by what is familiar to us. “Genuine appetite” is an illusion, too, if Hewett means by that an appetite that is purely natural and not influenced by our experience of music. Some of us are willing to try to understand what seems alien to our experience. The subject of my article was the frequent display of outrage at something disconcertingly new. The rejection is normal and not particularly interesting: the resentment, however, deserves our attention.

No one, as far as I know, judges music “out of deference to some imagined validation of posterity.” We may try to find some sympathy for a work that does not immediately please out of deference to the judgment of friends or critics whose taste we have learned to trust. There is nothing pernicious or immoral about it, and it is the normal way of coming to terms with the unfamiliar. It sometimes works.

Hewett implies that Sir William Glock didn’t really like the modernist works he programmed. As Comptroller of Music at the BBC, Glock certainly scheduled music which had attained a certain critical recognition, because it was admired or respected by others (although he unjustly neglected a very few composers like Alexander Goehr). He also had the administrative tact not to proclaim publicly his lack of sympathy with some works and his admiration for others. Those who knew him, however, had no difficulty at all in perceiving his passionate devotion to some composers. As proof, one can turn to his autobiography, where he writes with evident love for the work of Roberto Gerhard, Pierre Boulez, and Elliott Carter, and where there are deeply felt remarks about others, like Peter Maxwell-Davies.

I wanted to point out that it is unlikely that we can revitalize the tradition of classical music by performing mainly those new works which are agreeable at first hearing, like those of Malcolm Arnold. About all that accomplishes is to ensure a token presence of contemporary music without alienating the most elderly subscribers to symphony concerts. Younger listeners needed by music societies, on the other hand, are much more likely to be attracted by the adventure of difficult music. I have been to sold-out concerts of music by Cage, Boulez, Berio, and Carter in Paris, New York, and Boston, and the audience was always predominantly young. The main problem is how to make it possible for younger people to suspect that they might be interested.

The tradition of classical music is upheld by those works that some musicians and music lovers want passionately to play and hear. These works will survive as long as even a small group wants them enough. The contention that the programming of difficult modernist music has prevented the performance of easier works is absolutely without foundation. In referring to his autobiography, I saw that Glock gave statistics for 1961 of performances at the BBC when he was there: Benjamin Britten, 152; Sergei Prokofiev, 87; Arnold Schoenberg, 42; Francis Poulenc, 39; Malcolm Arnold, 23; Pierre Boulez, 3; Karl-Heinz Stockhausen, 1. This tiny representation of difficult modernism raised a ludicrous storm of protest. The same foolish protest is still heard today when a conductor once in a while dares to program a difficult work.

I have directly received a surprising number of responses to my article—some angry, others congratulatory—and many others were sent to the NYR. A few of the negative letters pointed out that not all difficult music is good (and it is true that most of it—like most of anything else—is junk). Others claimed that the fact that the most difficult modernist music has not been able to attract a mass audience proved that it was morally inferior. In literature, Marianne Moore and Wallace Stevens never made a living from poetry or achieved the sales figures of Ogden Nash or Kahlil Gibran; Proust could not compete with Agatha Christie. In this sense, not only commercially but aesthetically, Verdi is better than Monteverdi and Michael Jackson is better than Beethoven: they give more people aesthetic pleasure and satisfaction.

Another writer asserted that older composers made a living from their music unlike the difficult modern ones: but the most famous contemporary modernists make a perfectly good living from royalties and commissions, unlike Chopin, Schumann, and Wagner, who had to teach, conduct, or find aristocratic patrons. Still another writer merely affirmed that all serial music (except that by Bartók and a little phrase in the “Faust” Symphony by Liszt) was unbearable. Perhaps I should not complain: as I said, the fact that modernism still enrages some listeners is a proof of its continued vitality. In any case, antimodernist polemic conceals in its heart a strange paradox: When music is popular, it’s good; if it’s fashionable, it’s bad.

In general, the negative correspondents imagined that their dislike had equal weight with the love that others have for modernist style. But dislike has no significance and no importance if it is not accompanied by understanding—and that implies the admission of at least the possibility of love. That is what the enemies of modernism cannot concede, and that is why their criticism comes down to nothing more than an assertion that they don’t like modern music (which we knew) and can’t appreciate it (and we are sorry for them).

I have not met with performances of the composers named by Jessica Krash whose music is “sexy, amplified [???], aggressive, wild, playful, or enjoyable,” so I do not think they have yet attained a large public following. Perhaps they will, if their works are performed often enough with real enthusiasm with or without amplification. However, Krash’s characterization of the modernist works of the past fifty years as “dour and astringent” shows that she, like Lloyd Webber, has not the slightest idea why anybody likes that kind of stuff. Nothing by Boulez, Berio, or Carter, for example, sounds astringent to those who admire them, and the works of Carter which are violent and tragic would not be described as “dour” by anyone who understood them even if he were Scottish.

Of course, nobody except a masochist would go for art that is dour and astringent. This is another hint of the silly idea that nobody likes modernist style. Here is the fundamental difference between the modernist and antimodernist positions: I know why Krash and Lloyd Webber like the music they prefer, because I like it, too—sort of, at moments—but they cannot conceive that the modernist works I prefer have, not an astringent logic, but extraordinary emotional force, and give to those who love them a powerful sensuous delight.

PS: I have just been sent a record by the Music Sales Group of Companies of “popular classical music” with works by Samuel Barber, John Adams, Jean Sibelius, Jocelyn Pook, and many others. It contains a selection by Malcolm Arnold, “Maggie and Willie” from the film score to Hobson’s Choice, which has an extremely attractive Puccini-like melody dressed with English folk characteristics, an agreeable musical equivalent of that popular English dish, ravioli on toast with chips. If one is tired of art with sophisticated technique and delicate and complicated flavors, this music would be very easy to like. But it would not be good for you, morally or physically, as a steady diet.

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