The Music Theorist’s Immunity Challenge
I’m not made of steel. When my impatience with performers and audiences who don’t cotton to new music becomes too tiresome even for me, I need a change of pace. I need to go after a community that has an even harder time justifying the necessity of its existence to The Man than we composers do. I need to lower my sights and take aim at the theorists.
Some time ago I wrote on NewMusicBox that a composer of contemporary concert music would be the first castaway to be eaten in a hypothetical desert-island scenario. This assumes, however, that no music theorists are stranded on that unforgiving spit of land as well. I would need only to point at my scholarly colleague and raise my eyebrows as if to ask “do you know what these people actually do?” to get to the next meal. There will be plenty of time between lunch and dinner for me to make my final peace.
No offense intended, of course. Some of my best friends are theorists. They’re all exceptionally intelligent people and consummate musicians, no doubt about it. My gripe is with the music theory community as a body—a logy, sluggish beast that, like many mainstream classical music ensembles and listeners, seems about fifty years behind schedule. Of course there are theorists who specialize in postwar music, and I’m very grateful for their important contributions. But how many Mozart scholars do we need? How many Schubert experts? How many Wagnerians, for crying out loud?
These questions aren’t rhetorical; they have a very simple, if open-ended, answer. We need as many as it takes to create and disseminate a corpus of research that can inform performance practice. Developing frameworks that enable players to approach old music in a new (but authentic) way is a guaranteed path to relevance. The formulation of these frameworks is only half the battle, though: I’d submit that theorists who study traditional music are obliged to make their findings available to performers, to involve themselves, in fact, with players just as intimately as composers do. Nothing makes me care less about 19th-century music scholarship than not getting to hear it come to life in the concert hall. Regrettably, performers tend not to seek out cutting-edge theory on their own steam, so the onus, as I see it, is on theorists. Proselytize.
Or, if you’re uncomfortable with that, take a look at some new music. That’s the other way to be relevant: write about what’s going now or what happened in the recent past. Imagine, for a moment, how rich and fascinating the theory world would be if even half of the Beethoven scholars in the country suddenly chose a new composer to study, one born after 1925. Imagine, moreover, what would happen if theorists took on both of these proposed functions—if they chose to act as both performance practice guides and observers of new compositional activity. It would be about the best thing to happen to composers since the theorists clambered ashore off the wreckage of our ruined ship.