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Is It Music If Nobody Hears It?
Eve Beglarian and Kitty Brazelton
 

George Rochberg used to be one of America's best composers in a not-very-popular style: 12-tone music. Developed by Arnold Schönberg in the 1920s, 12-tone music was an attempt at a new musical language in which all 12 pitches of the scale were used in a complexly rotating order. Though the technique promised theoretical unity and consistency, the style was usually dense and dissonant and difficult for nonmusicians to follow. Rochberg was one of our major composers in that style, but his music had a lightness and lyricism to it that was attractive. Pieces like his Serenata d'estate, or Summer Serenade, of 1955 used the 12-tone idiom with a rare and delightful lightness of being.

However, in 1964 Rochberg's 20-year-old son Paul died of a brain tumor. Devastated, Rochberg did some soul-searching, and found that the highly technical 12-tone style wsn't sufficient for the emotions he now needed to express. As he put it,

"With the loss of my son I was overwhelmed by the realization that death... could only be overcome by life itself; and to me this meant through art, by practicing my art as a living thing (in my marrow bone), free of the posturing cant and foolishness abroad these days which want to seal art off from life."

Already well known and with a prominent position at the University of Pennsylvania, Rochberg underwent a highly visible and controversial change of mind. To the horror of his colleagues, he abandoned the official atonal style of musical academia and started writing tonal music, romantic music, music with hummable melodies. First he worked quotations from other composers into his music. But by the mid-1970s, he found himself writing in older, obsolete styles, the styles of Handel, Beethoven, Mahler. For instance, the beginning of his String Quartet No. 5, written in 1977, sounds very like a Beethoven scherzo, though written 150 years after the death of the composer it evokes.

Innocent-sounding as it is, within the profession this music was a slap in the face. Rochberg's fellow composers raked him over the coals. Prominent music critics like Andrew Porter of the New Yorker dismissed him as "irrelevant." For all his music's continuing undeniable craftsmanship, Rochberg had abandoned the one most essential core belief of 20th-century music: the idea of progress. Rochberg had turned away from the future, and was looking, through his music, back toward the past.

Nevertheless, after a few years of grumbling, other composers turned on their heels and began to follow: David Del Tredici, William Bolcom, John Adams, John Corigliano. By 1982 the New York Philharmonic gave a festival of what curator Jacob Druckman called "the New Romanticism." Looking backward became not only acceptable, but hip.

David Del Tredici: Audio "Interview" (34:49s)
John Corigliano Audio "Interview" (29:00s)
John Adams Audio "Interview" (29:00s)

In the mid-20th-century, classical music had bcome difficult to listen to, for a number of reasons, good and bad. One was that composers had felt limited by the confines of 19th-century musical technique, and wanted to explore a much wider range of expressions, even if they led into thorny territory. Another reason was a growing analogy between music and scientific research, especially among the increasing number of composers who were teaching in academia, freed by their secure institutional incomes from having to impress an audience. One noble reason that shouldn't be underestimated is that mid-century composers were turned off by the intense commercialization of swing-era jazz and popular culture. Modernist music was, on some level, an attempt to create a music that could not be co-opted by the recording industry and the culture industry: a music that would remain free from that taint of money. To that extent, it was a smashing success. No one got rich writing 12-tone music.

But whatever good intentions there were, the overall result was a massive PR failure. Not only corporations, but audiences fled from contemporary music in droves. And now that the modernist era is over, composers are having to seduce back listeners who've grown out of the habit of following the newest musical trends.

The term "avant-garde" is military in its origins, denoting those who go out on the front line, to be followed by reinforcements. This paradigm had always worked in the past; Beethoven was considered avant-garde, but music lovers eventually figured out what he was doing, and caught up. Brahms was once considered so academic and melodyless and dissonant that in Boston's Symphony Hall, one wag put up a sign over the door that said "Exit in case of Brahms." It became a truism that new music was never appreciated by the public at first, but that as they got used to it they would learn to hear its beauties. "The authentic poet," Wordsworth had written, "must create the taste with which he is to be enjoyed." That expectation had paid off for over a hundred years, and composers can be forgiven for not recognizing for a couple of decades that the system no longer worked.

But it was true: in the case of mid-20th century music, the cavalry never arrived. The avant-garde went on ahead, but audiences never followed. Once again, and hardly for the first time, American Maverick composers had to go out looking for their audience. It was all the harder since 12-tone music and similar types had given new music a very bad name with the average music lover. To win back audiences, the new music had to be not only well-written but seductive. It had to provide listeners with points of access. These took two forms, one associated with the New Romanticism, the other with minimalism: either you had to refer to some musical convention that listeners would already be familiar with - that's the New Romanticism - or you had to define your musical terms so simply that listeners could figure out what was going on on first listening - that was minimalism. "Accessibility" became the controversial buzzword of the 1980s."

George Rochberg, after all, was not the first to try to make his music more accessible. As early as 1967, Steve Reich, in deliberate reaction against the ugliness of both 12-tone music and the chance music of John Cage, had written music stripped down to a few pretty pitches in his Piano Phase for two pianists. The intent was to make a gradual process audible - the going out of phase of two identical melodies played at slightly different speeds - but it didn't hurt that the music was awfully easy on the ear. Reich's next few pieces, like Music for Mallet Instruments, Voices, and Organ, became even prettier, and prettiness, a quality despised by the modernist composers, came radically back into style.

In 1920, Maverick composer Charles Ives had written, "Beauty in music is too often confused with something that lets the ears lie back in an easy chair." But now, in 1974, reacting against several decades of music that was more like a bed of nails than an easy chair, Steve Reich would write, "Obviously music should put all within listening distance into a state of ecstasy."

"Access" and "accessibility" used to be fairly uncommon, stuffy-sounding, bureaucratic words. Once the interstate highway system was built, we had "access roads." Disabled people now have to have "free access" to public spaces. For people to have access to a piece of music, it needs to contain either some element so simple that it can be understood immediately, or some passage that sounds like something the listener has heard before. A mammoth, ornate, complex work like Elliott Carter's Double Concerto for Piano, Harpsichord, and Orchestra, however brilliantly structured and carefully written, doesn't have anything simple in it, nor any passage that sounds like something most music lovers have heard before. Many people love this work as a modern masterpiece, and if you spend time getting to know it you may agree; but you can't say it's terribly accessible.

John Adams' piece for strings called Shaker Loops, on the other hand, also doesn't sound much like anything anyone had ever heard before, but its opening premise, growing from vibrant repetitions of a single note, was easy to latch onto at first hearing. Having hooked you with this access point, the music is then free to move carefully, slowly, into new and less obvious territory. Plus, the music is couched in harmonies that are not unfamiliar to lovers of classical music.

Adams started out as the so-called "fifth minimalist" after La Monte Young, Riley, Reich, and Glass. But Adams was only mildly interested in the simplicity of minimalism, and in the early 1980s he started heading into the New Romanticism. The change was clear in his Grand Pianola Music of 1982. The work started out with a shimmering, Steve Reich kind of effect: harmonic lines echoed an eighth note later by other instruments, as though the orchestra were being put through an echo box. In the third movement, however, a new subjectivity emerges in a grandiloquent theme worthy of Beethoven. Some took Adams' Beethoven posturing as a joke, and perhaps he first meant it that way. But Grand Pianola Music paved the way toward a heartfelt romanticism.

Say you want to write music than an audience will like. You have the choice of trying to create a new audience for your own work; or you can go after an audience that already exists, such as the classical audience, the opera audience, the jazz audience, the pop music audience. Adams, like Rochberg, Del Tredici, and the other New Romantic composers pitched their music to an audience that already existed and was already in their seats, so to speak: the audience for orchestral music. By returning to a grand melodic lyricism and a lush harmonic vocabulary associated with music of the great 19th century masters, you can give listeners new forms clothed in orchestral colors they already recognize. John Adams' Harmonielehre, written in 1985, is still dotted with the repeated notes and arpeggios of minimalism, but its grand symphonic sweep is closer to Mahler and Sibelius than Glass or Reich.

Like Rochberg, David Del Tredici was another apostate from 12-tone music. Unlike Adams, he took no detour through minimalism, but went straight to the romantic vocabulary itself. For many years, Del Tredici was a man obsessed with a single source of inspiration: the Alice in Wonderland books of Lewis Carroll. His orchestra works based on Alice - including An Alice Symphony, Adventures Underground, Haddocks Eyes, Vintage Alice, Child Alice, Final Alice (1976) - return to a late romantic style but skewed, blurred by instruments playing out of sync, like Mahler being played by an inebriated orchestra.

For classical audiences who still don't get the point, it's possible to include direct references to the classical literature. John Harbison's November 19, 1828 for piano quartet is an homage to the great Austrian composer Franz Schubert; its title names the day Schubert died. Among many references to Schubert in the piece, the third movement actually incorporates a tune from a piano piece Schubert never completed. Even closer to a classical audience's experience, Rochberg's 6th Quartet contains a set of variations on one of the most popular pieces in the repertoire, Pachelbel's Canon in D.

Of course, not even composers who love the classical repertoire always take it so seriously. William Bolcom, perhaps the most irreverent style-mixer among orchestral composers, started off the "Scherzo Mortale" of his Fifth Symphony of 1990 by using the wedding march from Lohengrin as counterpoint to "Abide with Me," then rushes into a foxtrot version of the love-death music from Tristan. No one, howver, could go further in this direction than that great musical humorist Peter Schickele, whose Unbegun Symphony is a big, crazy grab-bag of everyone's favorite classical themes.

On the other hand, the classical music audience isn't the only ready-made audience out there. There's a far more massive pop audience, and many younger composers especially have attempted to get its attention by borrowing its iconography. One of the most famous such attempts is Philip Glass's Songs from Liquid Days. By 1986, Glass had already captured the heart of the avant-garde and made big inroads into the classical opera world as well, with his operas Satyagraha and Akhnaten. Now he made an assault on the pop world: he asked several popular songwriters well known for their lyrics to write words for a song cycle, including David Byrne, Paul Simon, Laurie Anderson, and myself (Suzanne Vega). He then set the songs in his trademark style and found pop stylists to sing them, including Linda Ronstadt in the song "Freezing," with lyrics by myself (Suzanne Vega).

In Hydrogen Jukebox, Glass teamed up with the great beat poet Allen Ginsberg and turned the poet's words into a series of lengthy, repetitive pop songs. John Adams even tried his hand at a musical about the effect of an earthquake on a Los Angeles ethnic community, I Was Looking at the Ceiling and Then I Saw the Sky. The spirit is pop, but the shimmering backgrounds come from the world of minimalism and orchestral music. The forays these composers make into the pop music work may seem acts of desperation, but in reality, they are only displaying the versatility that composers used to in earlier eras. Beethoven wrote arrangements of Scottish folk songs to make money, big symphonies like his Ninth to please the masses, and string quartets for a small circle of connoiseuers capable of following his highest thoughts. Not until the 20th century did composers isolate themselves at the "high-art" extreme of the spectrum.

For classically-trained composers born in the 1930s and '40s, the conversion to a pop idiom might be quite a stretch. But those born in the '50s grew up right along with rock. They didn't have to convert: they just had to fuse what they learned in music school with what they'd heard on the radio all their lives. Eve Beglarian and Kitty Brazelton, for example, are two composers who have graduate degrees in music from Columbia University, once one of the great bastions of musical conservatism. But they are also musicians steeped in the popular music of their culture, and when they teamed up to do a late-20th-century rendition of a 14th-century love song by Guillaume de Machaut, it came out very hip and up to date. Based on a recent dance music style out of Washington, D.C., this piece played by Brazelton's Dahdahdah ensemble is called Machaut a Gogo.

Your typical young composer these days starts out playing in a garage band. Mikel Rouse, from Missouri, fronted a rock band called Tirez Tirez, moving with it to New York in 1979. The rock band ended and Rouse writes operas now, but his operas are made up of extended songs pervaded by complex rhythms he learned from studying African music. And composers who write symphonies now, like Rhys Chatham, are just as likely to write them for ensembles of electric guitars, drums, and synthesizers as for the European orchestra. Chatham's 1989 symphony called An Angel Moves Too Fast to See was the first work written for 100 electric guitars; others have followed.

There are not only other ways to reach audiences, there are other reasons. In the 1970s, an international group of composers rejected the elitism of the avant-garde in favor of a music that would reach out to the working classes and inspire political action. In the U.S., the chief of these were Frederic Rzewski and Christian Wolff. Rzewski went to Harvard and Princeton and then Europe, working there with the electronic improvisation ensemble Musica Elettronica Viva. His emergence as a composer, though, was as a card-carrying minimalist, though one with a political bent. One early work he wrote for any group of instruments, Coming Together of 1972, placed a rivetingly angry musical background beneath a letter by Sam Melville, a political prisoner who had been killed in the uprising at Attica prison.

Within a few years, though, Rzewski had put minimalism behind him in favor of quotations of workers' political songs. "It seemed to me," he later wrote, "there was no reason why the most difficult and complex formal structures could not be expressed in a form which could be understood by a wide variety of listeners." In 1975 he produced what remains today his most famous work: The People United Can Never Be Defeated, a mammoth set of piano variations on a Chilean revolutionary song by Sergio Ortega. In 36 variations, Rzewski takes the listener from a direct quotation of the song itself to an exploration of its structure, from the populist to the abstract, studded with programmatic touches such as a quotation of the Communist song "The Internationale." Brilliantly laid out in a rigorous scheme, but never losing a sense of accessibility, The People United stands next to Beethoven's Diabelli Variations and Brahms' Handel Variations as one of the great tests of a pianist's power and range.

However, the appearance of The People United raised profound questions in the 1970s about the potential power of music to have an impact on audiences, questions that still await answers. Say an audience listens to The People United and loves it; does that mean they will absorb the revolutionary sympathies that Rzewski meant the work to embody? It's easy to imagine some hawk who believes in safeguarding the world for American corporate imperialism thinking The People United is a great piece, while completely missing its political point. And conversely, are the blue-collar workers on whose behalf the piece exists going to be drawn into the concert hall to hear The People United? Why would labor union members, no matter how devoted to the class cause, particularly want to hear The People United rather than the pop music they usually listen to?

Further than that, how many pop music fans feel that pop music is lacking in depth and length and complexity, and would feel more satisfied by a classically trained composer like Philip Glass or Rhys Chatham using a rock beat? Probably some small percentage. For many pop music fans, presumably, the three-to-five minute length and the lyrics and the harmonic simplicity are part of the charm. How many pop listeners will like a symphony better if it uses electric guitars instead of an orchestra? How many classical music lovers are really looking for new music, whether it quotes Schubert or Wagner or not?

None of this is new - it's part of the great pendulum swing of American music. Aaron Copland felt in the 1930s that new music had become too isolated from its audience, and wrote, "It seemed to me that composers were in danger of working in a vacuum.... I felt it was worth the effort to see if I couldn't say what I had to say in the simplest possible terms." He then started writing populist ballets like Rodeo and Billy the Kid, winning a place in the orchestral repertoire.

Yet composer James Tenney has said, "I never think about the audience when I write because there's no such thing as the audience. Everyone listens differently." Is that really true? Can't you sometimes sense a group thrill run through an audience at an exciting premiere or a dashing performance? On the other hand, if there's no such thing as "the audience," does that meøan the composer is justified in ignoring the listener altogether? Don't composers have an obligation to serve the society they live in, just the same as doctors, lawyers, and generals?

We don't have definitive answers to any of these questions. Between the composer and the listener lie a number of vast intermediaries with enormous power: the recording industry, the performers, the managers of orchestras and concert halls, the unions that make rehearsing new and possibly difficult orchestral works tremendously more expensive than replaying the old warhorses. If every composer could get his or her music played for vast numbers of people, surely some of them who now languish in obscurity would become popular. But not everyone's music can be played for everyone, and deciding whom to play involves taking risks, something than neither the classical music establishment nor recording companies are thrilled about doing these days.

You may add a rock beat to your 20-minute symphony, but that doesn't mean the pop radio stations will play your CD. You may write an orchestra piece in the style of Mahler, but that doesn't mean the New York Philharmonic will give you the time of day. Abandoning the arrogance of the past, composers today have gone to considerable lengths to write music that is accessible, that the lay listener with little or no experience of new music can understand and quite possibly like. But the composer can't do all the work him- or herself. In order to complete the connection, listeners need to seek out new music, and institutions and corporations in control of its distribution need to be receptive and ready to take risks.

Even then, some attitudes are too ingrained to change. When John Adams's Harmonielehre received its New York premiere with the New York Philharmonic in the early 1990s, it came at the end of the program, following the Fourth Piano Concerto of Nikolai Rubinstein. Rubinstein has not been a well-known composer for several generations, and his Fourth Piano Concerto, though his most famous work, is not particularly celebrated today. Truth be told, it's a fairly mediocre example of late romanticism. However, it received a rousing ovation from the New York Philharmonic audience. Afterward, Harmonielehre was played: a piece fully as romantic, melodic, easy to understand on first listening, far more exciting than Rubinstein's tepid concerto. The Philharmonic audience walked out in droves to express their displeasure. Why? Because Rubinstein was dead and John Adams wasn't?

Next on American Mavericks we'll take a look at the newest generation of Mavericks, those born in the 1950s and '60s. We'll hear how they've adapted to a changing musical scene, and incorporated into their composed music the rock idioms they grew up with and loved. We'll hear a music not popular, not classical, but somewhere in-between.

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