The Aesthetics of Survival
Although George Rochberg’s collected essays—The Aesthetics of Survival—was published with very little fanfare by the University of Michigan Press in January 2005, an anonymously-posted blistering online review of the book (filled with factual misinformation and personal attacks) appeared on Amazon only days later. When I chanced upon shortly after his death in May of that year, it struck me as one of the most mean spirited things I had ever read. And, although I have serious qualms with censorship, I sent a letter to Amazon asking that they remove it. I even ranted about it on these pages.
Of course, Amazon never took down the comment, but last October a second poster who offered his name declared the book a masterpiece and implied that anyone who didn’t think so can’t use their ears properly. Both comments remain on the site to this day.
I’ve finally read this extremely articulate book and can definitely see why some might be getting bent out of shape. Rochberg makes a persuasive case for his apostasy from musical modernism, decrying the arcane structures of integral serialism claiming they ultimately lead to music which is perceptually indeterminate. In a strangely prophetic essay titled “Indeterminacy and the New Music” written in 1959 (several years before he actually stopped composing twelve-tone music), Rochberg questioned the serialization of dynamics, insisting that the word “dynamics” mandates an emanation from expression rather than an order in a scale of measurements. In “No Center” from 1969, he constructs a manifesto based on intuition:
The liberation of the imagination from dogma implies the freedom to move where the ear takes us and to bring together everything which seems good to it. We are not Slaves of History. We can choose and create our own time.
In 2006, Rochberg’s manifesto looks remarkably similar to the contemporary music landscape of today. And yet Rochberg is rarely cited as one of its models. His music has been sadly absent from major concert venues in the year since his death.
The Rochberg collection was published roughly around the same time as the collected essays of two other composers, both of whose writings are arguably as polemical and timely as his: Milton Babbitt and Steve Reich. Luckily both of them are still very much with us, and their music continues to receive frequent performances. But neither book has inspired a single online reviewer on Amazon thus far to pontificate one way or the other. Could it be that Rochberg’s theses are ultimately more controversial than those in Babbitt’s “The Composer as Specialist” (the essay universally known by its first editor’s interloping title “Who Cares if You Listen?“)? Or Reich’s “Music as a Gradual Process” which equally skewers Cage, serialism, and “drug oriented rock”? Or do all of Babbitt and Reich’s detractors shop in bookstores rather than on Amazon?