Since the debate about taste that got sparked here last week raged for days, it might seems like overkill to add a couple more coals to the fire with a further provocation, but here it goes anyway.
I’d venture a guess that most people, if asked who their favorite author is, would probably name a living author, if they have a favorite. Same goes for favorite baseball player, favorite singer, favorite movie star, etc. Yet ask someone to name their favorite composer and I’d also guess that those who don’t give you that baffled “what’s-a-composer” look will more often than not mention someone both long-dead and from another country.
Over the years, I’ve heard many new music folks come up with the same names as the standard rep classical folks do when pressed to name names. Why is that? Are we so eager to show the world that our new music is in fact part of some sacred tradition that spawns from the same DNA as the music that those once-upon-a-time gods on earth had written? Or could there possibly be a fear that naming someone who is alive and well and possibly living around the corner might give that person too swelled a head? Perhaps we’re afraid of offending other living composers who think that their names should have been placed there instead.
Might it be that Beethoven, W.A. Mozart, or J.S. Bach really are better than any composer who is alive today? And if someone were to objectively explain indeed why they are, could it ever be possible for there to be a better composer than them at some point in the foreseeable future? And, would it ever be possible for such a composer to come from the U.S.A.?
Admittedly I’ve heard folks namedrop more recent composers with added qualifiers, e.g. favorite contemporary composer, favorite American composer. Yet so often death anoints here, as well. While all extremely deserving while they were alive, death did wonders for the reputations of György Ligeti, Lutoslawski, Messiaen, and Xenakis, as well as Morton Feldman and John Cage.
I honestly don’t have a favorite composer. When asked, I’ll usually retort, “Myself, since I’d like to be someone’s favorite composer.” Trust me, it’s a bit tongue-in-cheek and not some form of megalomania. But ultimately it’s only half a joke, since in the final analysis the only work that can be calibrated to precisely match one’s personal taste is one’s own.