I’ll Quote You On That

I’m sure I’m not the first composer to watch the trailer for Glass, a Portrait of Philip in 12 Parts, the recently released documentary film about “our greatest living composer,” as the San Francisco Chronicle dubs him. I’m equally sure that I’m not the first composer whose ears pricked up upon hearing Glass’s concluding voiceover:

You know, there’s a lot of music in the world. You don’t have to listen to mine. There’s Mozart; there’s the Beatles. Listen to something else. You don’t have to listen to this. You have my blessings—go on, listen to something else. I don’t care.

In other words: “Who cares if you listen?”

I’m not calling attention to this startling symmetry to castigate
Glass, or Babbitt, or even the editorial staff at High Fidelity. Neither Glass nor Babbitt (nor, to the best of my knowledge, anyone who reads NewMusicBox) is a court musician whose job is to satisfy the whims of a wealthy patron. I only hope that Glass’s espousal of this perspective comes at a time when the tastemakers and gatekeepers of listening culture are ready for it; they certainly weren’t ready for Babbitt’s suggestion, way back in ’58, that composers may need to consider criteria other than mass palatability in their compositional decisions.

But the resentful audiophiles who retitled Babbitt’s essay aren’t the only ones to have commented on this situation, of course. When I heard Glass’s pronouncement at the end of that trailer, a few other choice quotes from living composers sprang to mind:

“I don’t believe that composers of new music sell out. The money’s not good enough.”

and

“$#@! the audience. You are the audience.”

6 thoughts on “I’ll Quote You On That

  1. jbunch

    He’s right you know
    Well, he’s objectively and obviously right in one sense – there are other pieces of music in the world, and no one is required to have any given listening experience. But in another sense, I think only composers who have already been the subject of documentaries, or recipients of tenure at Juilliard are able to cope with the consequences of that mindset. It’s not selling out to write for an audience – that conversation is much larger than typical instances would lead you to believe. What if you happen to like also what the audience likes? It would be selling out for you to write against your own tastes (unless of course you also happen to see the role of music as a kind of philosophical purgation process). The emphasis then,should be upon the tension between authenticity and self-criticism, and the resolution of that tension is difficult and not the same for everyone.

    I suspect that Glass’ comments were aimed not at the broad audience that we (unfairly?) generalize as “the public,” but upon academy types (like myself, for the time being) that are often uncomfortable with the rhetoric that Glass and others wield against people who work out of the university. Why would anybody who does not listen in the same way (and for the same things/reasons) as a composer have a problem with the score to “The Hours?” It’s the academics that typically criticize this music (though not all of them). And if there are substantial criticisms to be made, they should not be vilified as aesthetic aristocrats devoid of feeling for making them. To do so is to undermine the entire conversation and to sabotage even the hope of communication.

    On the other hand, the academic community owes it to the world to be fair and non-partisan. Too many of these conversations about aesthetic values and their relationships to awareness of the audience are just another opportunity to display polemical opinions and not have real discourse. There is much to be said for Glass’ work, and it should be said (and said well) by academic folk that see something personally and corporately important about it. And the question of “what is the role of the composer in 21st century America” needs desperately to be asked. This role changes over time, yes, but I get the sinking sensation that, like many other areas of human experience in post-enlightenment times, the answer is an individual one and should not be treated as if it belonged to the entire community of artists for all time.

    PS, what’s with the e. e. cummings-style punctuation this week?

    Reply
  2. Colin Holter

    I agree–and let me just say that I think Music in 12 Parts, which I assume is the documentary’s namesake, is a major piece of 20th century music; if there’s a canon, that piece deserves a place in it. (Coincidentally, I think that’s also the last piece in his catalogue that Glass describes as “minimalist.”)

    Reply
  3. Tom Myron

    “I think only composers who have already been the subject of documentaries, or recipients of tenure at Juilliard are able to cope with the consequences of that mindset…”

    All due respect, don’t kid yourself. He’s right as rain.

    Reply
  4. philmusic

    “I don’t believe that composers of new music sell out. The money’s not good enough.”

    I’ve been trying to sell out for years!
    No one will make me an offer!

    Phil Fried, Lilliput University, where small minds make small decisions!

    Reply
  5. Colin Holter

    I’ve been trying to sell out for years! No one will make me an offer!

    Amen, dude. If you want to find out just how far I’ll go to prostitute my talent, patrons, just start writing checks – I’ll say “when” as soon as they get big enough!

    Reply

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