by David Jason Snow

The following essay, published in the February/March 1984 issue of Symphony Magazine, was composed as a public "screw you" to the author of a whiny screed that had appeared in the same journal several months prior. That editorialist, conjuring a nefarious academic/serialist/minimalist conspiracy to sap and impurify the precious bodily fluids (and cash) of The Classical Music Establishment, stooped to dragging John Cage's quaintly stale, 30-year-old provocation 4'33" into his polemic as an example of Entartete Kunst, this the author's sad (and sadly still-current) expression of Reagan-era politics-of-resentment. Just substitute the term "welfare queen" for "composer" in his text and you'd swear you were reading the National Review. If the guy was sincerely exercised about vast amounts of money and resources being diverted from worthwhile cultural projects (i.e. those that mirrored his own taste) to trendy junk, why not rage against the manipulative, vapid juggernaut of disposable popular culture that was actually monopolizing public attention and vacuuming up loose change from Americans' pockets? Why not? Because, as any tin horn rabble-rouser knows, it's easier to kiss the public's ass by validating its clenched-sphincter prejudices than by challenging those prejudices.

Consider the following concert program: a selection of Schubert lieder, a dose of bone-crushing "heavy metal" rock-'n'-roll, a Paul Anka medley (including the ever-popular "You're Having My Baby"), a Hindustani raga, a Boulez piano sonata, a set of Mississippi delta blues, and as an encore, Leroy Anderson's The Syncopated Clock. Some listeners might find the contrasts refreshing, but to most, the experience would be understandably irritating. The kind of emotional mind-set required to enjoy 19th-Century romanticism is not appropriate for 20th-Century pop or for Indian classical music, and it is difficult for most people to switch gears so often in the course of one concert (or even in one lifetime).

There is no judgment of quality implied by that observation; every musical culture requires "different ears" in order to genuinely appreciate it. Should any one listener be able to assimilate such a variety of musical languages? Is there one "legitimate" musical voice of our culture? And what is music supposed to do for a listener?

A tedious argument has been raging for decades about the "problem" of contemporary classical music. It has not honestly addressed those questions, but has wrapped itself up in bogus nostalgia, snobbery, facile comparisons, and a misreading of the real conditions of our culture. The essence of this argument is that contemporary music has not fulfilled its obligation to entertain, that it is a self-justifying technical exercise written by composers for composers. Make no mistake, this is not a subtle and elegant debate about aesthetics, but just a crass battle over the politics of taste.

In an ideal world, if would be fair to assert that composers should write whatever they want, and that audiences should listen to whatever they like. But there are a few basic economic issues at stake here, such as which composers get to eat, and which have the privilege of starving for their art; which composers are ritually lionized, and which receive obligatory abuse. One can reasonably object to the way these decisions are arbitrarily made by the press, by recording companies, by orchestra managements, by universities, and by foundations, but what do we expect? Who should make these decisions? And how should the social value of a musician translate into dollars and prestige?

A long time ago, the professional composer served the church as part of an organic social structure. It was hardly a glamorous position, but it was creatively and spiritually integral to its context. In that role, composers developed a universal musical language that defined the means and goals of artistic expression, goals that were consonant with art's social purpose. As an ascendent aristocracy replaced the church in its role as patron, that musical tradition continued to develop and accommodate its new secular function. There is no idealization intended here, because such environments were as restrictive and reactionary as they were nurturing. But there was at least a tradition of institutional support for composers that was integral to society. There are even some cultures today that hold an honorable place for music and musicians, particularly where communal values and historical sense are strong. But where community has been displaced by commerce and the commercial mentality, music just becomes another commodity. This is our predicament. Composers and artists operate in a kind of moral vacuum where their work must compete with other forms of "amusement" in a marketplace.

In the absence of an integrated cultural life and tradition, composers have had to "roll their own," but the often-heard argument that they deliberately attempt to be "inaccessible" is specious. To which segment of society and to how many individuals must a work appeal to qualify as "accessible?" Are Schubert lieder "accessible" to Olivia Newton-John fans? Is reggae "accessible" to countrywestern buffs? Is the "classical" audience the only qualified and literate judge of musical legitimacy? There is no reason for a composer to avoid appealing to that specialized audience; but that audience isn't necessarily the natural constituency of a music that encompasses "new Romanticism," old serialism, process music, pandiatonicism, techno-pop, funk, free jazz, bop, boogie, and blues.

When composers speak of building audiences, of "educating" them, they face a task as challenging as building a skyscraper on a swamp. Music has become a commodity like toothpaste or shoes, and for commercial purposes it must be palatable and easy to digest. As a matter of education, it wouldn't be enough to ritually "expose" inexperienced ears to the demands of new music; advocates would have to convince them that music doesn't have to be background noise or a mere diversion in a culture full of petty amusements, but rather a powerful living force to be reckoned with. Music would ultimately have to acquire a significance and spiritual value it has never enjoyed in our age except among fanatics. In light of this situation, what we're discussing here is a need for revolution, not simple education. The seeds of this revolution may already be present in the tentative cross-fertilization taking place between "popular" and "serious" music, in the pervasive use of electronics in music, in borrowings from non-Westem sources. But the emergence of a general cultural revival from this incipient subculture is still a utopian pipe dream.

Critics will continue to snort and whine about the "expressive failure" of new music, and to pine for a return to decency; and composers can at least take comfort in the fact that those who make their living talking about music are remembered only by virtue of their association with people who actually produce it; the Eduard Hanslicks of the world are merely incidental to real life, but the Brahmses and Wagners are the ones who create it. Our culture might be evolving toward the point where Bach and Boulez, Barry Manilow and Sonny Terry can coexist on the same concert program, but we don't have to demand or expect that. The least we should demand, though, is that we develop our passion, sense of humor, and openness towards music. And that obligation is as much the listener's as the composer's.