Remembering George Rochberg

Last week, after having just gotten back from the National Critics Conference in Los Angeles and racing madly against the clock to get the talk with James Tenney up on NewMusicBox, I learned the sad news of the death of George Rochberg.

I had long wanted to have a conversation with Rochberg for NewMusicBox, but it was not to be. The closest I ever got was a brief phone call, the results of which served as a Hymn and Fuguing Tune comment (remember those?) back in March 2000.

Since there have been an abundance of excellent obituaries for Rochberg available on the web this past week, I felt that there was no need to redo here what has already been done. However, one thing I learned from his recent passing perhaps does bear further discussion here.

Rochberg startled the music community over 35 years ago by rejecting the “historical inevitability” of the 12-tone system and re-introducing tonal elements into his music. In retrospect this was not so revolutionary since so many other composers (Barber and Rorem to name just two) never stopped composing tonal music. But perhaps what made Rochberg’s embrace of tonality so upsetting to the custodians of musical progress was that he was such a good composer of 12-tone music. He was one of them. And, just as Mikhail Gorbachev’s reforms from within ultimately led to the dissolution of the Soviet Union, Rochberg’s embrace of tonality might arguably have been what led to today’s poly-stylistic musical landscape.

It would seem that this is old news by now, right? Not quite. One of the Rochberg obits last week made me curious about seeking out some of his essays about music which have been collected in the volume The Aesthetics of Survival: A Composer’s View of Twentieth-Century Music published by the University of Michigan Press this past January. When I tried to track down that volume on Amazon, I was greeted with the following one-out-of-five-star “review” of the book by someone only identified as “A reader.”

Rochberg, having failed to distinguish himself as a composer, let alone an alternative to modernism, makes an attempt as an Adorno wannabee in this effort. The latest essay is from 1982, and they all are hopelessly dated. Roger Reynolds “Mind Models” from the 70s generates more excitement and shows more relevance to today’s scene than Rochberg’s stuffy, self-referential musings. This book is destined to collect dust at university libraries, only to be read by those who want to read something that confirms their views, as evidenced by William Bolcom’s introduction.

If you must read, ask yourself this question: On what basis should we take Rochberg seriously? Where is an epistemology that we can trust?

Apparently some people out there are still threatened by Rochberg’s aesthetic positions enough to hide behind anonymity and hurl ad-hominem attacks his way that say more about the closed-mindedness of Rochberg’s detractors than they do about Rochberg’s own music or ideas.

The sad news here is that according to Amazon’s statistics, 4 out of 7 readers found this gibberish helpful which means that, more than likely, more than half the people who visited this page did not buy this book because of it. (Admittedly the total number is not one to be proud of, which makes the negativity here all the more destructive.)

At the National Critics Conference there was a lot of talk about how criticism can continue to be relevant in a world where uncritical knee-jerk reactions are the rule of the day, and everyone can blog his or her own singular viewpoint to the world on a now completely level playing field. Perhaps the way to be relevant, as I have argued many times before, is to take on a greater level of advocacy and to present as many sides to an argument as possible rather than simply worrying about being right and making sure everyone who disagrees with you is summarily proven wrong.

That said, here’s my opinion… Rochberg, like Cage (seemingly an unlikely pairing, but an apt one here), showed there was more than one path and the world is a better place for it. Thank you, Mr. Rochberg.

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