Shelf Life: How Musical Reference Materials Treat American Composers

The two leading English-language reference works on composers of classical music, The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians and Baker’s Biographical Dictionary of Musicians, brought out new, vastly expanded editions in 2001. Nearby library shelves are sagging with smaller, more specialized recent books offering information on American composers living and dead. An unprecedented amount of information on the composers of our time lies but a paper cut away.

And much of it is worthless.

The problem is not really who’s in and who’s out, although even that situation is unsatisfactory. I have recently surveyed 17 books of differing scope, as well as a couple of websites, and if you’re an American composer over 40 there’s a good chance that you’ve been immortalized somewhere, even if only with a three-inch entry in the omnivorous Baker’s“. If you’re under 40, though, you’d better get busy registering your website with various search engines, because nobody’s going to find out about you by reading a book.

As I flipped through the pages, many of them still smelling of fresh ink, I paid special attention to entries on a small group of representative composers. In the historical category were Charles Tomlinson Griffes (1884-1920) and Aaron Copland (yes, he’s history: 1900-1990). A group of elder statesmen consisted of George Perle (born 1915), Ben Johnston (1926), and Charles Wuorinen (1938). I included three composers of three different generations whom I happen to know because they live in Tucson, where I do: Robert Muczynski (1929), Daniel Asia (1953), and Dan Coleman (1972). Topping off my list is Annie Gosfield (1960).

I wasn’t trying to play Stump the Encyclopedia with these last four composers; all ought to be in the books. Muczynski has a solid catalog of rhythmically compelling Neoclassical works behind him, and his Time Pieces is becoming a clarinet staple; it has been recorded at least four times, and it’s not even 20 years old. Asia is a co-founder of the New York ensemble Musical Elements, was composer-in-residence with the Phoenix Symphony a few years ago, has been widely performed by musicians and orchestras of some repute, and is privileged to have had his piano concerto and all four symphonies, among other things, recorded. Coleman, though the youngster of this group, is already well established, having spent several seasons affiliated with Boston’s Metamorphosen Chamber Orchestra and written chamber works for the likes of Ida Kavafian. Gosfield is an engaging Downtown composer with Bang On A Can associations; a few of her works have been commercially recorded, as have some of Coleman’s.

As you’ll see if you persevere, Gosfield and Coleman fared poorly in my survey (Coleman didn’t make it into any of the texts), the others had mixed but not entirely dismal results, and Copland, of course, was everywhere. This is not surprising, given reference books‘ necessary emphasis on those who are well entrenched. What is distressing, however, is the quality of the available information.

Unfortunately, entries for living American composers who do get into books—and not just my test group—are little more than bare-bones curriculum vitae. Typically, there’s a full list of academic appointments following the usual name-dropping of “teachers” (including, no doubt, gray eminences who merely gave a single lecture to some class the subject attended). Then comes the itemization of awards and grants. This may have some small value to cultural statisticians, but it’s absolutely useless to anyone seeking information about the composer as a creator of art. One sentence or two—for major, older composers, perhaps a fuller paragraph—may try to encapsulate the subject’s approach to music, but only superficially.

What a curious idea that listing a composer’s education and employment history, as well as grants and awards, tells us anything useful about that person’s music. All we’re offered is the composer’s position in society, not an aesthetic stance. What patience would we have with an encyclopedia listing for J.S. Bach that merely itemized his appointments in Cöthen and Leipzig, gave a nod to his directorship of the Collegium Musicum, and concluded with the observation: “He was a prolific composer of cantatas, organ fugues and instrumental suites in a distinctive though rather old-fashioned style”? We expect better for Bach, and we should demand more for contemporary composers.

Whether the presence of composers in the American academy has been good or bad for music (and for the composers themselves) is a topic for another day, but the skewed balance of information in current encyclopedia entries suggests that an academic career takes precedence over the creation of music. If this is not true, then a whole lot of reference-book editors and contributors need to start again from scratch.

What we need is an interview-based encyclopedia of 21st-century American composers, preferably online. Each entry would be approached as if it were a very compact magazine article on a composer’s life and work. So a composer says he studied with Bernard Rands. OK, the question becomes, “What did you learn from Rands? Or what did you rebel against?” The subject submits a list of commissions and grants. Don’t stop there; ask, “Did these commissions redirect your work in a way you hadn’t expected?” Most importantly, what does the music sound like? How does it work? And if this is online, how about a couple of representative audio files? (Oh, boy! This means fun with publishers and musicians’ unions!)

A skilled interviewer and an articulate composer could cover this ground in a 30-minute phone conversation, and in a halfway comprehensive reference source, that would add up to a huge investment of time. But it would create a work that is truly informative. The entries wouldn’t have to be long, either. You can say a lot about a composer and his or her work in 300 words, if they’re the right 300 words. That means, for the most part, not the words in the current ready-reference books, which are useful to only three people: those on a composer’s promotion and tenure committee.

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