How To Cook an Albatross

First published in Arts in Society, 7 (1970), pp. 34-38, reprinted in Source, 6 (1970), pp. 63-65. Reprinted from “Maximum Clarity” and Other Writings on Music by Ben Johnston, pp. 126-133. Copyright © by University of Illinois Press. Used by permission of the publisher.

  • READ an interview with author Ben Johnston.

    ***

    MaximumClarity

    The world of “serious music” stubbornly bases itself on a sterile presumption. Since the “standard repertory,” in no matter what areas of performance, is historical, it creates a museum situation. While there is nothing wrong with having museums, we should not take their contents to be the principal means to satisfy contemporary needs. Perennially we make just this error.

    The proportion of music of our own times now in the repertory of most concert artists and ensembles is smaller today than at any other period in the history of concert giving. When most performing artists, warned that they are not bringing about a repertory for the future, set about to find new works, they seek imitations of the old works, which they believe they “understand.” In fact, most of them do not understand the art of the past at all. They do not make the effort to imagine what it was in its own time, taking it instead in the context of today. The role they find repertory music playing in today’s society they impose unthinkingly on today’s music. Looking back for all “greatness” has become so reflex an action that it is presumed normal. In fact, it is not normal at all: it is an historical anomaly. As Gilbert Chase writes:

    In the eighteenth century it was an asset rather than a liability for a composer to be alive. Not only his music but also his living presence were solicited as a privilege for the public . . . The eighteenth century might indulge in idolatry . . . but it was the distinction of the nineteenth century to develop the cult of musical necrolatry . . . The “Great Repertoire” cannot change, because it involves too many vested interests. Far from being an incentive to the American composer, it is a permanent barrier.1

    In the United States today a “serious composer” is called “young” up to the age of fifty if he has not been accepted into the musical establishment by then. The composers’ wing of the establishment is a bureaucracy, comprising the few who, after waiting out a protracted “youth,” finally have a moment’s recognition. This privilege they defend for as long as they can, knowing its radical impermanence. Innovators are recognized by the establishment, if at all, only in old age, since independent thinkers are the toughest competition of all.

    Most performers and conductors advise composers (if they want performances) to write music (if they must write at all) which does not deviate much from the standard repertory. But a docile composer who wants only to write conventional music for standardized solo, chamber, and orchestra concerts has to struggle for all of his career for more than a few scattered first performances. His work (it is pointed out) is poor competition for the “masterworks.” The following arrogant quotation was recently widely reprinted in the press and popular magazines: “I occasionally play works by contemporary composers, and for two reasons. First, to discourage the composer from writing any more. And second, to remind myself how much I appreciate Beethoven” (violinist Jascha Heifetz). To cite Gilbert Chase again:

    The difficulty was that by the end of the nineteenth century admission to the Standard Repertory (the effective vehicle of the Great Tradition) has become increasingly difficult for new composers . . . Not only was the competition keener, but the club was getting crowded. It was approaching the saturation point. Guest memberships were available, but permanent admission was virtually impossible, save for a very select few. To make a place for himself a newcomer had to oust an old member. The Europeans had all the advantages; not only were most of them dead, but those who were living had an inside track on the Great Tradition. No wonder that no American composer has ever really made it.2

    Conventional concert and opera audiences, led by performers and by writers about music, usually gravitate toward comfortable, familiar music, even at the cost of boredom. They seem to know little about pertinence. The idea that a piece of music could be apt (or inept) at a given time and place for reasons more important than its vogue seems never to have occurred to most concertgoers. A concert may be pleasant, diverting, and “uplifting,” but the listening experience it provides rarely has any urgency or potency. At the worst it can even induce sleep by its failure to keep attention.

    The public performance of repertory music has become a variety of genteel entertainment. To fulfill this role it confines itself to readily intelligible schemes of order, to familiar and accepted emotional associations, and to conventional musical sounds. For the kind of people who want confirmation that the status quo will not be threatened by changes, such entertainment is a symbol—not to say a ritual—of social and ideological stability. When (and if) most performers and conductors seek new works, their criteria are above all those of the “Great Tradition,” which they claim the public demands.

    Such demand as there is comes from a small, elite, and largely wealthy public, conditioned to want this traditional music by social custom, by musical education, and by promotional propaganda (which encompasses the vast bulk of music criticism). This conditioning is, moreover, class oriented.

    Now that more than a wealthy minority of society faces a leisure problem, we find “the amusements” rushing in to fill the vacuum created by alleviating the hard, competitive struggle for existence. There is widespread alarm among many thinking people at the harm done by a manipulative, irresponsible amusement industry.

    Properly understood, art would be a far healthier activity with which to fill leisure time, because it is educational in the classic sense: it can train one’s abilities, which can then be applied as one sees fit. Art is our sharpest tool for training sensitivity and responsiveness in action with others, along with keen sensory observation and alert muscular coordination in the performance of precise actions, and with intelligent grasp of the many kinds of order and disorder in phenomena and in behavior. The problems of what to do about leisure time and of what to do about our culture’s abysmal failure to educate feeling and sensitivity in people can become one problem. Until and unless “serious” composers and performers serve such a real need as this, and not simply a status-seeking and status-serving one, they will deserve exactly what they are getting: a social function as dubious luxury items.

    It is dishonest and self-deceiving to claim that by maintaining the supremacy of the standard repertory we are enabling the public to benefit from the continuance of a precious artistic heritage from the past. It is not true that the public understands Beethoven more easily than Webern, Webern more easily than Cage. The overfamiliar is what people usually understand least. Even the irritation of an audience jolted into listening with unjaded ears shows a much greater degree of understanding than their conditioned response to the classics.

    Just as commercial exploiters of popular taste usually claim to be supplying a demand, when in fact they are actively engaged in creating one, so leaders of community musical culture make the same false claim. Actually, little long-range effect upon concert series’ policies of program selection results if a majority of their audiences express like or dislike of a particular work, composer, or musical style. If the moneyed few who donate funds to support the concert series disagree, they decide otherwise.

    When Eleazar de Carvalho resigned as conductor of the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra in 1967, he stated that this was because the Symphony Board demanded to make up the program content for each season. The board’s strongest objection was to de Carvalho’s utilization of the available rehearsal time in favor of new works. This had resulted in some rough performances of standard works.

    Former critic Peter Yates attended one of these premieres and afterward was quoted to this effect by a St. Louis newspaper. Yates later expressed alarm and resentment at this quote for being taken out of context. A letter he wrote to Barney Childs about the new (American) work on this same concert suggests the proper context of his remark: “The audience divided between applause and booing . . . The enthusiasts kept the applause going until the booers quit. Occasions like this make possible the existence of a native music.”

    Yet ignoring completely the audience’s manifest insistence upon accepting the new work, the press implied repeatedly that this and other new works of the 1965–66 season in St. Louis had received negative reactions from the audience. Ostensibly on this basis the board cracked down. They claimed that attendance at concerts had dropped off, due to de Carvalho’s musical policy.3

    An argument is often advanced to the effect that new works have (in Europe) perennially received hostile treatment at first, and yet have gone on to become repertory. So runs the argument, what are American composers griping about?

    Quite simply, they are griping about being forced to choose either to be treated as poor relations of Europeans or to become dropouts. Almost without exception, up to the present generation, to be a dropout from the musical establishment required accepting “amateur” status, either supported by an independent income, like Charles Ives, or not supported except part-time now and then, like Harry Partch.

    But today it is possible to drop out and still remain an effective member of the profession. Independent composers and performers more and more often organize festivals, concert series, even permanent performing groups. These increasingly tend to concentrate on works which are new in more than a chronological sense, and to negate explicitly or by implication the very occasions, attitudes, and behavior patterns which society has established for concerts.

    That is why the establishment, which aims to continue conventional traditions and customs of concert presentation indefinitely into the future, feels the tenor of many young musicians’ activities to be not merely nonconformist, but actively revolutionary. Such musicians are seeking and finding a new audience, new kinds of social occasions for listening to music, new ways of presenting sound experiences to people. They work with performers so closely that the boundaries between composer, performer, electronic technician, and theatrical director are often all but obliterated.

    The kind of composer of whom I speak is not at all content with an audience of specialists whose expertise approximates his own. He cares if you listen, but he is not about to say what he thinks you wanted to hear.4 For his purpose, the kind of performer who will give to a composer’s work the same respect and meticulous care he regularly gives to Bach is simply not good enough at all. A new challenge has been offered the performer: to participate as actively as the composer in the creation of music, not merely to interpret it, certainly not merely to realize it. There are many young performers who meet this challenge with enthusiasm, relieved finally to drop the role of museum curator for that of fellow artist.

    William Blake observed in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell that “One law for the Lion & Ox is Oppression.” He might have added that one music for all people is a bore. Popular music has won its revolution. The monopoly of musical trivia for so long forced on everyone by means of commercial promotion has given way. Tin Pan Alley’s song lyrics get stiff competition now from real poetry. Today’s rock music is a far better equivalent to the folk music of rural cultures than were any intervening varieties of urban popular music. For “serious music” to win an analogous revolution would really give grounds for optimism, because that would indicate that intellectuals were giving up class values in art for more durable values.

    I do not know a better formulation of the “rock” point view than Burt Korall’s:

    Today, however, the voices of dissent are louder, for cause; we cannot wait any longer for the rapport to develop whereby we can live with one another. It is either pass down an inheritance of absurd reality or change direction . . . it becomes clear that it is no longer possible to separate music and life as it really is. Politics, sexuality, racial pride, deep and true feelings have entered popular music to stay. Our youth is central to this metamorphosis . . . Confusion reigns. Truth and honesty are at a premium. A valid way of life is sought. To this end, the young explorer rolls across a wide spectrum of subject matter and musical means and mannerisms. He experiments with ideology and sounds, often shaping answers in the process. But they are always open to change; flexibility is part of the concept . . . Hope is implicit in the negation of past and present mistakes—the hope for an apocalypse which will make the blind see, the intractable feel, the world’s fearful face change.5

    A radical left position outside the context of pop culture has found incisive expression by John Cage: “Twentieth Century arts opened our eyes. Now music’s opened our ears. Theatre? Just notice what’s around . . . the last thing I’d do would be to tell you how to use your aesthetic faculties . . .”6 And, even more searchingly, Cage writes:

    How does Music stand with respect to its instruments, . . . pitches, . . . rhythms, . . . degrees of amplitude . . . ? Though the majority go each day to the schools where these matters are taught, they read when time permits of Cape Canaveral, Ghana and Seoul. And they’ve heard tell of the music synthesizer and magnetic tape. They take for granted the dials on radios and television sets. A tardy art, the art of Music. And why so slow? . . . in our laziness, when we changed over to the twelve-tone system, we just took the pitches of the previous music as though we were moving into a furnished apartment and had no time to even take the pictures off the walls. What excuse?7

    The first of these two views (the rock musician’s) is moral, prescriptive, critical, involved. The second (Cage’s) is detached, liberating, critical, involved.

    In both cases abstract matters of perennial concern in the tradition of Western music (such as order, structure, form, proportion) either are banished or are assigned subordinate, almost nonessential roles. In both a vital new alternative to the establishment is sought—earnestly, uncompromisingly. In both cases the aim is freedom, artistic and social. The rock movement, however, is a group phenomenon, while Cage very much affirms the primacy of the individual.

    If the values and perceptions of our heritage from European art are to be kept alive, they must be discovered afresh by us against a background of vital contemporary art. It is above all the traditions of making art which must be preserved, not intact, but seminal, ready to take root in no matter how different a culture. The art treasures themselves, including musical ones, are a matter for museums. It is only common sense not to throw out our European artistic inheritance, but the way we are maintaining it invites radical opposition. The dominance of an imported art culture has always tended to arrest the development of indigenous art. Compare the effect of the art of ancient Greece upon that of Rome, or the effect of the art of nineteenth-century western Europe upon that of contemporary Russia. The existence of a free avant-garde in the United States makes possible an escape from such cultural smothering. An imported tradition can be domesticated for local use. It can even serve as a staple of cultural diet, but not if it is treated as a sacred cow.

    We are now in the midst of learning the hard lesson that glamorous, neoaristocratic temples of art like Lincoln Center in New York, or the community arts centers in Atlanta and Los Angeles, or the Krannert Center for the Performing Arts in Urbana are alarmingly apt to tend in our culture to officialize the art of the past (as in the USSR) or else to deteriorate into centers for commercial mass entertainment. This results from the most direct of causes: aristocratic art on a big scale is expensive. Someone must pay. If the very wealthy or the government are to pay, the official solution is the only likely one. If the general public is to pay, then exploitation of the public by commercial interests with ready capital is depressingly probable.

    In either case, today’s vital art (whether mass-directed or aristocratic in its appeal) is concerned with the realities of life in the second half of the twentieth century. It naturally shuns such anachronistic environments, which suggest to audiences that they have entered an island, sheltered from the surrounding world: a safe, comfortable seclusion that is the death of art.

    In contrast to this, the last few years have seen increasing support of new centers of contemporary music by foundations, universities, and even in some cases state and national subsidy. A ferment of new activity has grown up wherever such support has been extended to active groups of performers and composers, freeing them from dependence upon the competitive commercial music world for their livelihood. Creative musical activity in the United States is decentralizing steadily, despite the concentration of musical activity and related business and publicity in major metropolitan centers.

    This can happen today because the present phase of the communications revolution means that a young musician in almost any country of the world where political power does not suppress exchange of information can be informed accurately and extensively about what his peers are doing the world over. With a little effort he can get tape recordings, articles, programs, not to speak of personal news and gossip. He participates in an artistic community which is by no means provincial.

    There are increasing numbers of young musicians who don’t want acceptance into the establishment, nor do they especially want to do battle with it. Its values—musical and cultural—bore them, except when they arouse anger, and not because these young people are without culture and intelligence. On the contrary, they find conventional and official culture smug and unaware of its own irrelevance in the face of the manifest realities of life here and today.

    In less than a generation, the age group of which I speak will outnumber considerably its seniors. Perhaps it will generate its own “establishment,” but that will be of a very different kind from the one that now dominates what is called our “national musical life.” The number of musicians in the United States who don’t think “business as usual” can apply to the arts is already larger than ever before.

    ***

    Notes:

    1.Gilbert Chase, “The Great Tradition,” unpublished lecture.

    2.Chase, “The Great Tradition.”

    3.A news story by Robert K. Sanford that appeared in the St. Louis Dispatch, Sunday, May 7, 1967, bore the following headline: “De Carvalho Tells Why He Chose to Leave: Asserts Management Ordered ‘Workhorse’ Compositions.” I quote from the body of this story:

    De Carvalho, who has been conductor and music director of the orchestra since 1963, has presented a number of contemporary musical works in his programs. Eleven compositions were presented here as first performances, nine as first performances in the United States.

    But during discussions about programs for the next season he was told that the contemporary works should he avoided, that they were bad business, the conductor said. In recalling a conversation with three persons described as “very high in management,” De Carvalho said the restrictions went beyond contemporary works. He said he understood that in selecting a Beethoven symphony, for instance, he should not choose Beethoven’s Second, or Fourth, but should choose the Fifth or the Ninth, compositions with which people are familiar.

    4.The allusion is to an article by Milton Babbitt, “Who Cares If You Listen?”

    5.Burt Korall, “The Music of Protest,” Saturday Review of Literature, November 16, 1968.

    6.John Cage, “Diary: Audience 1966,” in A Year from Monday, 50ff.

    7.John Cage, “Rhythm, etc.,” in A Year from Monday, 122.