The Who and Why of Bang On A Can

2. Who are the Household Name Composers in America?

FRANK J. OTERI: So the one question is, why, before Bang On A Can (. . .and I guess we’ll get into the issue of has it changed since Bang On A Can has been on the scene. . .), why aren’t people going to new music concerts?

MICHAEL GORDON: Why weren’t people?

FRANK J. OTERI: Yeah. Why weren’t, or why aren’t?

MICHAEL GORDON: You know, new music, I don’t know, post-World War II, I think, the place of contemporary music in society retreated. Post-World War II modernist music was incomprehensible in America. But you find in Europe that that’s not true. In Europe the equivalent of Carter and Babbitt, you know, the Ligetis and Stockhausens are like gods. And there is an audience – and they are revered. But here, I think, maybe, for whatever reason, that famous stance by Milton Babbitt — “Who cares if you listen” — I think, signaled retreat from the audience.

FRANK J. OTERI: Was there ever a time that an American composer was ever put up there and was revered like a god the way Stockhausen or Ligeti is?

MICHAEL GORDON: Copland. . .

JULIA WOLFE: Leonard Bernstein.

MICHAEL GORDON: . . .and Gershwin.

FRANK J. OTERI: Gershwin was certainly breaking boundaries but he was a success in popular music before he wrote for the concert hall.

MICHAEL GORDON: That’s true.

RICHARD KESSLER: Bernstein’s another story, though, had it not been for West Side Story and On the Town. In fact, he was constantly disappointed, it was one of the great disappointments of his life not to feel that he had succeeded as a classical contemporary composer.

FRAN RICHARD: Gershwin, too.

RICHARD KESSLER: And to some extent I think Copland is really now emerging more than ever before. I’m not sure what it was like in the 60′s. I wonder.

DAVID LANG: Well, the 60′s were a hard time for him. You know, certainly the 40′s. That was a real heyday for him. The 60′s were real difficult because he sort of lived long enough to see what he pioneered go out of fashion.

RICHARD KESSLER: But in terms of him being a household name, in terms of him being a major figure in the 40′s, a major artist of the period?

DAVID LANG: I don’t know. It seems to me that the political situation would make him much more prevalent than in the 40′s, when there was a tremendous attempt to find national musical figures who had the same stature that European figures did. That meant something the way that Shostakovich meant something to World War II Russia, the way that Roy Harris’s symphony took on political significance in this country, and Copland certainly was held up that way.

FRAN RICHARD: There were so many important figures who were heroes because they ran from fascists. And there was an engulfing and swamping of what was becoming an American tradition which started with a classical tradition coming from another place. But you’ll also find that there’s resistance in the traditional classical music community to what’s new rather than what’s American.

MICHAEL GORDON: That’s historically true. Ives, you know, printed his own music and sent it to all these people who didn’t want it, basically. They only really accepted him years later. He understood that. He didn’t show when his Third Symphony was finally premiered.

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