Postscript to Rzewski

Many years ago, I met a very young pianist, Frederik [sic] Rzewski, and he said with the peace of mind available, he said, “You know that canon for two pianos?” Canon, me, my canon? Oh yes, that free-durational piece. It was a canon, I suppose. To tell you the truth, if I’d thought it was a canon, it would have caused me to commit suicide.

Morton Feldman, “Darmstadt-Lecture” from Essays

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Rzewski: Radical Conservative?

A few weeks ago, Frederic Rzewski wrote a comment (posted by pianist Eliane Lust) on the New Yorker article “The Fat Lady Is still Singing: Why Classical Music Isn’t Really Dead.”  I’ve taken the liberty of copying the text here:

“Why is there no similar discussion of painting, literature, cinema?  Painting really is dying, while literature and cinema are thriving. Music is somewhere in between.  The level of creativity has clearly gone down in the last 50 years, while the level of performance has gone up (especially in the case of the piano, btw).  At the same time composers who know nothing about counterpoint are becoming popstars.  There is a problem, but nobody really understands it very well.  It’s complex, it has causes, like the monopolization of the music industrty [sic], but to talk about it in terms of life or death is meaningless.

Shostakovich was probably the last great classical composer.  Stockhausen was good, but not as good as Richard Strauss.  There have been some very good composers since WW2, like Kurtag and Elliott Carter, but none of them has captured the imagination of a broad public.  What has captured this imagination (and the industrially-created market for “classical contemporary”) are people like Steve Reich, who, although very skillful at what he does, can in no way be compared (as a composer in the traditional sense) with someone like Carter.  The art of composition is in trouble.  At the same time the many groups who are playing this music are playing better than ever.  It’s not easy to understand, and merits serious discussion, not this rhetorical blahblah from superficial journalists who are rushing to the attack on or defense of one élite or another (institutional or industrial).

What is needed are composers who can really speak to the masses, and at the same time have something to say (as neither the minimalists nor the academics do not)y, who can lead the way in revivifying the art.  Shostakovich knew this very well, and succeeded.  Copland and Britten tried, but they just weren’t that good. Probably the most important American composers in this respect were Gershwin and Ellington, but they are excluded from the classical pantheon.

But probably the most important thing that could be done would be to bring back things like local community concerts, like the ones my mother used to take me to in the 40’s. at our high school auditorium in Westfield, Mass.  That’s how I became a musician.” FR 1/30/14

I agree with his ultimate message that composition needs more exposure in order to thrive, particularly through amateur and community means, but he makes a number of uncomfortable implications in some of his points. I am not in a position to defend painting, but from my perspective, the situation with composition is much more nuanced than what he posits. I do not particularly want to add to the vast quantities of ink (mostly digital) spilled on the topic of whether or not classical music is dying; I merely want to address some of the philosophical and compositional issues he raises, namely the supposed decline in creativity of classical music over the past fifty years and his implicit aesthetic criteria for what makes a composer ‘great’.

The first problematic assertion Rzewski makes is that the level of creativity in music has gone down in the past fifty years. Classical composition in the last fifty years has seen an extraordinary explosion of creativity in all styles, in every region where it is active. To provide a comprehensive list of the accomplishments of that time period would not only be impossible, but also futile, since Rzewski has clearly already made up his mind on the matter. It is literally impossible that he is not familiar with the music of the period, since he has not only been composing the vast bulk of his output during this time, but he has also, in his role as a consummate pianist, been performing and recording the works of such composers as Henri Pousseur. I believe that his opinion must be coloured by certain factors that mask the true situation of composition today: the decline and replacement of classical music in the public consciousness, the growth of aesthetic individualism over collectivism, and the continued polarization of musicologists and critics. These are the factors that have clouded the public’s view of composers at work, and are nearly the only reasons why any open-minded person could believe what Rzewski claims.

The notion of classical music’s fall from the public consciousness is indispensable to this conversation, not only because it inspired Rzewski’s comment (and all of the articles that constitute the discourse into which his comment falls), but also because it explains a core circularity in his argument. If it was his intent to claim that the decline in creativity is what caused classical music’s withdrawal from the public eye, I would argue that not only is that assertion untrue, but in fact it has been the decline in stature of the art form that has made it more difficult to learn about and assess the work of recent composers, giving rise to his notion of a supposed decline in creativity. The notion that classical music should be relevant at all to the public at large is fairly new. For the first thousand or so years of its existence it was entirely sponsored by the powers that be for the elite, first the church and then the aristocracy. It was only in the late 18th century that public concerts and subscription series of instrumental music first came into being. Notable early examples include the concerts featuring Haydn’s symphonies organized by Salomon in London. The rise of the virtuoso with Paganini and Liszt created the solo recital and performer-as-celebrity, which cemented classical music’s place as a popular art form. By the early 20th century, developments in classical music such the premieres of the Rite of Spring and Berg’s Altenberg Lieder had the power to shock the public at large because they were representatives (albeit extreme ones) of the dominant form of music in the Western world. Whatever the reasons cited by all the articles that have cropped up as late, the causes of classical music’s decline from favour were the advent of recording, which allowed people to constantly revisit the same works over and over, removing a great deal of financial incentive for new pieces, and the advent of popular music, which replaced classical music in most of its functional and commercial uses. In the United States, classical music managed to retain its cachet for a few decades by an appeal to the “refined” tastes of its listeners (see this wonderful image from a 1949 issue of Life) and from an increase in funding in the form of Cold War rivalry with the USSR.  This cachet was mostly gone by the end of the 1960s however, and new developments since then have not been widely publicized, though anyone truly familiar with them would assert that this period has been just as creative as any from the previous 150 years.

My second contention is that the fragmentation of the compositional landscape over the past fifty years has further reduced the stature of the creative endeavours of composers working today. In the early and mid 20th century, compositional movements such as neoclassicism and serialism, though they were largely developed by individuals, attracted many adherents. Even if an individual composer or work escaped the public notice, often many of their ideas were taken up by others to the extent that one could generalize schools of thought in the public discourse. This tribalism was ultimate damaging, as I will discuss below, but the controversies it generated were enough to at least bring the existence of various groups of modern composers into the public eye. There certainly have also been relatively prominent compositional movements in the past fifty years, beginning with Minimalism in the late 1960s, through Spectralism in the late 1970s, but their effect has been much smaller (except, in Minimalism’s case, commercially), and they are often limited geographically and institutionally. The postmodern notion of an end to Grand Narratives (in a Lyotardian sense) was readily embraced by composers (even many who don’t write in a so-called postmodern idiom) and the compositional field today is extremely wide and fecund, but the composers writing outside the large movements are often overlooked by both the press and the academy.

Wide-scale academic and critical discourse on music, however, has been largely unaffected by these notions. In “New Music and the Modernist Legacy,” Björn Heile writes: “Indeed, it is hard to dispel the suspicion that for many musicologists the attraction of postmodernism lay primarily in its seeming to offer an intellectual cover for anti-modernist sentiment: all of a sudden the familiar, basically conservative, resentment against modernism sounded fashionable, up to date and even ideologically progressive.” (The Modernist Legacy: Essays on New Music, Björn Heile (ed.), p. 1) This has been particularly the case with Richard Taruskin, whose History of Western Music is plagued with issues that have been addressed at considerable length by cellist, composer and scholar Franklin Cox here and here. In brief, Taruskin uses the postmodern notion of an ‘end to Grand Narratives and the teleological notion of history’ to attempt to show an inevitable return to tonality (a teleologically-bent Grand Narrative if ever there was one). On the other side of things, Claus-Steffen Mahnkopf’s essays in his series New Music and Aesthetics in the 21st Century are marked not only by inordinately dense language, but also by his own brand of dogma:

Counter-polyphonic stances—whether conceived as aleatory, “tachistic” (Cage), as a negational combination of consciously irreconcilable elements founded on “polystylistic semantics” (Bernd Alois Zimmermann), as a statistical-stochastic leveling-out of dissociations to produce mass phenomena without internal functional relationships (Xenakis)—lead to the consciously random co-existence of materials, precisely because they neutralize all differences and shift the focus of the listening experience from the directness of the diagonal level to the “bird’s eye view” of the exterior, be it “harmonically” framed or simply uncrafted.

Claus-Steffen Mahnkopf, “Theory of Polyphony” (trans. Wieland Hoban) in Polyphony and Complexity (New Music and Aesthetics in the 21st Century Vol. 1), Claus-Steffen Mahnkopf, Frank Cox and Wolfram Schurig (eds.), pp. 45-6

To my surprise, those of my friends that have met him say that Mahnkopf is actually a very reasonable man in person, and is only so polemical in text because the ‘other side’ is equally so, and has the added advantage of accessibility. This sense of opposition, though not widely accepted by many composers, has been used constantly by conservative forces in the media and the academy, especially citing the perennial myth of serialism as an all-powerful force in mid-century American music, which was thoroughly debunked in a 1999 article by Joseph Straus. The continued usage of this trope serves to prolong the dominance of the narrow aesthetic position that supposedly rose in spite of serial oppression, while repressing the work of more radical composers.

“Shostakovich was probably the last great classical composer.” This reminds me of a passage that makes Rzewski’s statements look positively tame by comparison:

Music oscillates continually between the emotion created by its own technique (as by an acrobat at the circus or by the art of a dancer) and the emotion produced by its phrases, its rhythms, motives, colours. The art of music is a “closed” art, that is, one closely bound to its language. Also “closed” is the art of stained glass which, after flourishing in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, fell into decadence in the sixteenth. Similarly “closed” is the art of lace-work, reaching its summit in the eighteenth century, and the art of tapestry, of which the summit is probably the famous story of the unicorn at the Cluny Museum in Paris. This art, seduced by the new multitude of colours, tried, by imitating paintings, to become what it was not, and fell into a decadence which contemporary artists are trying to arrest. Other arts that have shared the same fate are those of the potteries of Limoges and the mosaics of Florence and Palermo.

Of course, Western music with its ten centuries of development is much more universal an art than stained glass or pottery. Our music moved from the monody of plain chant through organum and renaissance polyphony to a high point attained by Frescobaldi, Bach, Vivaldi and Handel. These composers employed consummately and with great liberty a complete polyphony, a wide choice and variety of means, and an even-tempered twelve-note scale which made unlimited modulation possible and revealed the full resources of the orchestra. …

In stating that this “closed” art of seventeenth and eighteenth centuries was based on the “absurd” tempered scale, I am also saying that it contained within itself the germ of its own decay. The masters who enlarged this system of harmony and rhythm searched for purely idiomatic techniques of the voice, violin, or piano, and developed the nineteenth-century orchestra. In reality they were not not employing musical means but rather acoustic effects. Beethoven was the first to seek these effects of silence, percussion, interruptions, unnatural dispositions of the chord, unnatural rhythms. (Maybe it was because he was deaf, but in any case he did it.)

The road has been open since Beethoven for the effects of Liszt and Wagner, where even such great masters are guided not only by what they know how to do but also, as a sort of escape route, by what they are unable to do. When, in a mazurka, Chopin writes two or three bars of counterpoint, he always finds a most ingenious way of getting out of it. Why? Because he was technically incapable of finishing it. Wagner uses harmonic richness to make up for his lack of melodic invention. Wagner used enharmonic notes and modulations as a sort of escape route, and Debussy likewise. Stravinsky rediscovered the ostinato, which has been so abused since, and the jump of a third in the bass, also as an escape route for what he could not do differently. All the innovations since Beethoven have been escapes for the incompetence of the innovators.

The last great composer to avoid this search for musical extremes was Mozart, who had such a complete craft that he could do anything he wanted without feeling deficient. The high point in expressive means obviously was towards the end of the eighteenth century. This noble art descends with the advent of effects which are abused with all the resources of the symphonic orchestra. Therefore, the decadence does not start with the harmonic explorations of Wagner, Strauss, and Scriabin, but rather at the height of music’s glory. Because this art had reached its height a decadence was inevitable—as with any art that is bound closely to its technique.

Zygmunt Mycielski, “Some Other Paths” in The Modern Composer and His World, John Beckwith and Udo Kasemets (eds.), pp. 86-8

There are so many problems with this extended statement that it almost doesn’t need rebuttal, and since Zygmunt Mycielski seems to have been consigned to the ‘dustbin of history’ in that I have never encountered any aspect of his work other than this particular talk which he gave at the International Conference of Composers, 1960, in Stratford, Ontario, so I will pass over it for now. (The entire book is fantastic, and deserves a full review, which I hope to write soon now that the wellspring of my writing has opened in preparation for my thesis.) That being said, this argument has essentially the same structure as the one implied by Rzewski several times in his comment, namely that he selects one or two comparatively minor but ill-defined standards (in Mycielski, counterpoint and the avoidance of “acoustic effects”; in Rzewski “speaking to the masses” and “having something to say”) as marking the pinnacle of music, while any developments after that point mark the inexorable decline of the art form. While Mycielski’s argument is obviously more ridiculous, and Rzewski’s is more forgivable, being merely an offhand statement in a comment on a news article (even if his standards are even more poorly defined), the similarity remains. There is another hint of implication in Rzewski’s statement that “composers who know nothing about counterpoint are becoming popstars.” I assume he is talking about the minimalists, and do not necessarily like much of their music either, but it raises a larger question about how to judge musical worth at all, which he does not bring up at all in his comment (despite making many judgments). If music is allowed to evolve and develop new paradigms, or if one sees these developments as a new art form altogether, it cannot be judged exclusively on standards from an earlier era either way. Rzewski’s alternative is that it should stay frozen in time, adhering to idealized standards of his own choosing.

The final issue raised in this comment is partially mentioned by Mycielski when he states that music “contained within itself the germ of its own decay.” While Mycielski attributes that fact to the rise of well-tempered tuning,  Christopher Butterfield attributes it to the very origins of notation. Whatever the cause, the consensus is clear that the very art of music is constantly in flux. Rzewski, however, both brings this notion into question and contradicts himself when he first compares Richard Strauss and Stockhausen (using the completely unexamined notion of “good”) and then claims that Elliott Carter cannot be compared with Steve Reich. He seems to be confused as to whether classical music is an evolving tradition or if there has been some irreparable rift in its fabric. Can one compare composers across huge historical, ideological and conceptual divides? Rzewski says yes in regards to Strauss and Stockhausen. Can one compare composers who were working in the same country for nearly 50 years but who had different structural roles in the commercial aspect of music? No, in regards to Carter and Reich.  This seems to show that Rzewski’s critique is mostly economic, and, to be fair, the structural issues facing classical music that he is supposedly addressing in his comment are mostly economic in nature.  Why then does he spend so much time attempting and failing to address unrelated artistic and creative issues?

Rzewski states that the structural issues facing classical music “merit serious discussion,” which they certainly do. Why then does end up resorting to the same “rhetorical blahblah” that he attacks?  Why was Shostakovich so “good” and why were Copland and Britten “bad?” I like a great deal of his music and agree with him in principle on the fundamental issues he brings up as to classical music’s place in the public consciousness, but the unjustified creative comments he makes are ultimately damaging to the cause (which was the entire purpose of the New Yorker article in the first place!). Has Rzewski really come so far from his days as a radical provocateur in the 1960s and 70s as to be just another curmudgeon decrying ‘music these days’? I hope not.