Letter to the Editor: Why Was There No NewMusicBox Obit of Ligeti?
I write this letter with what I am sad to say is a final frustration with your website. Recommended to me last fall when I was looking for a source for contemporary music news, I have since found New Music Box to be a somewhat stodgy, banal article repository with its only values found in the “what’s happening” write-ups about cities in the USA. On June 12, however, I had nowhere else to turn when a friend called to deliver the shocking and saddening news that Gyorgy Ligeti, perhaps the world’s most far-reaching, influential and greatest living composer, had died at age 83 in Vienna. My first reaction was to check New Music Box, and I found not a whisper.
I googled Ligeti’s name and found news articles and write-ups on his death from every major newspaper around the world. Today I returned to New Music Box to see what sort of obituary you had provided, three days later. Still nothing.
I realize that the site is run by the American Music Center, but if New Music Box considers itself to have any artistic or cultural responsibility to its readers, the lack of coverage of Ligeti’s death is nothing but the utmost ethno-centrism. No American composer in history has come close to accomplishing what Ligeti did, the closest being the movement championed by Steve Reich in California in the sixties and seventies, a movement that Ligeti not only witnessed living in San Francisco, but also adapted into his own compositions, being very interested in the techniques of Reich, Glass and their followers in conjunction with music of Southeast Asia and of the Banda Linda tribe in the Central African Republic.
I am interested to see what possible justification NMB can have for its failure on this issue. That Ligeti was not an American is immaterial; any American composer that does not in some way acknowledge his music is, simply put, not worth his or her salt. Any American composer that did not think about music in a new way after first encountering Ligeti’s music is either lying or poorly researched. If you move beyond composers to what (I assume, perhaps wrongly) is a target audience of casual music-listeners, you will find the majority of them giving Ligeti his due, having experienced his music in the movies of Stanley Kubrick, or perhaps having attended a performance of Atmospheres, perhaps the most important orchestral piece of the latter half of the twentieth century.
The only remaining excuse NMB can provide was ignorance to the event. If this is the case, then this website should seriously reconsider where and how it gets its news, and what possible role it can be playing in the arts community to miss something like this. No matter how NMB tries to justify this vast oversight, it has already led me to doubt that it has a role in the arts community, and certainly in my search for arts education, at all.
The death of György Ligeti is indeed the major music news story on the web this week. I am personally a huge fan of this enormously important and influential European composer, and he well deserves the numerous obituaries and testimonials that are now all over the internet. His death even made it to the pages of CNN.
Since the news of Ligeti’s death has appeared on free sites all over the web—I even posted the first of many threads about it to the contemporary classical music site Sequenza21 as soon as I learned of it from Musical America which is a subscription service—I question why you are so vexed that we did not duplicate this readily available coverage in NewMusicBox and deem our not having done so “a failure.” As the web magazine from the American Music Center, the mandate of NewMusicBox is to cover the work of American composers. This is no more a “vast oversight” than a bluegrass or hip-hop magazine not running an obituary of Ligeti because he was not a bluegrass or hip-hop artist.
Admittedly, Ligeti’s impact has been profound upon the entire compositional world. Ligeti’s death has been on all of our minds, and it has already been referenced in passing in a posting by Colin Holter that appeared on NewMusicBox yesterday. In fact, we are well aware that Ligeti was an important teacher to a wide range of American composers from Martin Bresnick to Roberto Sierra. And an article about Ligeti’s impact on American composers, which I have yet to see in any publication I have read thus far, would be appropriate for NewMusicBox and is something our editorial staff has discussed as a possibility at some point in the future. If anyone would like to publish a personal anecdote about Ligeti’s impact on their own music, we would welcome that in the comments area of this page.
We do feel a great deal of artistic and cultural responsibility to our readers. Therefore I must counter your assertions that “no American composer in history has come close to accomplishing what Ligeti did” and that “any American composer that does not in some way acknowledge his music is, simply put, not worth his or her salt.” No non-American composer in history has come close to accomplishing what Charles Ives, Elliott Carter, John Cage, Duke Ellington, Ornette Coleman, Thelonious Monk, or Meredith Monk, to name only a few, have done. But of course the same could be said about composers from all over the world and should be. This is not xenophobia. With all due respect to Ligeti, singling him out the way you have done as part of a “great man theory” after his death only perpetuates the myth that classical music is the domain of a few great European men who are no longer alive. Ideally, no composer should accomplish what any other composer has done. We are all unique.
I’m sorry that you find NewMusicBox to be “a somewhat stodgy, banal article repository,” but no one can account for personal taste.