Alex Ross was on The Charlie Rose Show Tuesday night—as a fan of both the interviewer and interviewee, I just had to tune-in. I hate to admit it, but the whole thing was a little bit disconcerting as my supposedly hermetically sealed artistic hovel was being infiltrated by the mainstream. But as the broadcast went on and my trepidation dwindled, I got more and more comfortable to the point that a feeling of pride began to emerge. There I was, sitting on the couch, witness to an intelligent conversation about new music—on the boob tube. I mean there was namedropping going on—first John Cage, then Morton Feldman—as though everyone watching knew who the hell they were talking about. After awhile it all seemed so normal, to me anyway. However, if only eighty percent of Americans can find the United States on a map, how many know the music of John Cage? One or two percent, perhaps, or maybe five if we’re lucky?
Regardless, book smarts shouldn’t be a prerequisite of appreciating music. Composers should be able to engage listeners’ sensibilities no matter what, but how is the general public ever going to appreciate so-called new music, which, let’s face it, could really benefit from a road map of its origins ? For many years now, Alex Ross has suggested that one of new music’s shrewdest enemies is its own inherent connection to the past. It’s an image problem wrapped in a catch-22: New music originates from classical music, which is a bone yard, not to mention un-sexy, but understanding its historical connections helps to contextualize and deepen one’s appreciation of new music, which again is so un-sexy. Or composers can just forget all of that junk and just write something freakin’ awesome. On that, I think we can all agree.