Aesthetic Orthodoxy In New Music

Wednesday, May 10, 2006

One might ask why the new music scene, especially in NYC, ended up so strongly divided into ideological encampments?

Was part of the problem our conception of the “new music concert?” For at least four decades, the publics for new music were often comprised largely of composers and specialized “new music performers” seemingly suffering from forms deafness created by their aesthetic ideologies. The aficionados were literally unable to hear music outside of their encampment, because they refused to genuinely listen. A good example was the BMI Awards starting in the 60s and going well into the 80s. For the most part, they might as well have said that composers writing something other than New York Bebop Serialism need not apply.

In the last ten years, new music and its publics have become a little more diverse. Post-modernism’s analysis of how power is allocated made the sources and weaknesses of aesthetic orthodoxy more apparent. But the old totalizing habits of mind remain. Ironically, deconstruction now seems to be moving toward becoming the latest all-encompassing ideology. One example might be the almost faddish incorporation of elements of pop into “classical” new music concerts. It is almost an obligation in some circles – a hip jeering at power that has ironically become the new center of power. Composers who might question such a reliance on pop are ironically seen as part of the “opposing camp.” And, of course, we are to forget that pop is the essence of the corporate music business, and one of the largest manifestations of cultural isomorphism in the history of humanity. Once again, a kind of cultural and social deafness is setting in.

When I lived in Manhattan in the 70s I couldn’t embrace either the Up- or Downtown scenes, even if I enjoyed some of the music that they made. Like many composers, I didn’t like carrying party-cards, and I have largely stayed away from the new music world ever since. I felt, more or less, that composers should write for performers who then take the composer’s music to publics. This might seem obvious, but it wasn’t. Instead, many composers seemed to write music primarily for a narrowly defined audience of other composers who shared a similar aesthetic or school of thought.

An extraordinary atmosphere of cronyism evolved. Careerist composers hardly considered wider publics, and instead sought to write music that would consolidate their position within a specific collective of composers who shared their style. This cronyism inevitably led to aesthetics that became ever more rarified and socially alienated. At least two or three generations of composers almost openly accepted a sort of quid-pro-quo form of careerism that seemed to slowly kill critical thought or dissent within the ranks. This seemed to contribute toward an enormous loss in professional standards. The “objective subjectivity” Frank mentions was often completely lost. The standard became, you scratch my back and I will scratch yours so we can strengthen our power base. As a result, the Up- and Downtowners often tried to colonize institutions where they could get a foothold. Many of our better-known schools and journals are still shaped by this history. It is one thing to try to create a school of thought, but another when it becomes totalizing and careerist.

Another aspect of cronyism was created by the poor funding of the arts in the USA. We ended up with only a small number of cities that significantly supported new music (essentially only Manhattan) with the result that a large number of composers were concentrated in small areas. This seems to have become a breeding ground for rarified orthodoxy and cronyism.

In a similar way, cronyism in new music was further compounded by America’s educational class system. A few very expensive, elite schools became the arbiters of taste and jealously held the reins of power in new music. Differing views, and especially dissent, were seldom tolerated.

Are cronyism and a loss of critical dissent still a problem? If so, what are the solutions? I know some of the usual approaches. Juries are rotated, but often among the same set of narrowly defined peers. And there has been an attempt to widen our appreciation of musical styles. The Pulitzers might include a jazz person now, but how much has that changed the tinge of cronyism that seems to color the prize? Our schools have become less shaped by aesthetic orthodoxies, but there are several very famous and powerful schools where quasi-totalizing philosophies still seem to be practiced.

I wonder if some organization like the AMC or a university might host a symposium addressing the problems of subjectivity and objectivity in new music, and with a specific focus on how to analyze and deconstruct some of the totalizing aesthetics and cronyism that have shaped our recent musical history. It’s almost as if it is an embarrassing topic we do not want to mention.

William Osborne

Wednesday, May 10, 2006, 9:37:07 AM