In his NewMusicBox column last week, “Avenues of Discussion,” Rob Deemer eloquently espoused the benefits of the online community. He postulated that our use of social media and advocacy for our music on the internet might engender a greater awareness of experimental music in general. As part of his discussion, Rob quoted Daniel Felsenfeld in his opening remarks from the new series Daniel is curating for the New York Times website, “The Score.” Daniel wrote: “It is not only that we composers lack a place at the cultural and political conversational table, but that most of those at said table hardly know we’re there.” (Daniel also said a great deal more, and I highly recommend that anyone with an interest in experimental music read his original article.)
I certainly agree with Rob that our ability to build a (somewhat) unified experimental music presence online will help our voice to be heard. I would like to add a call for us to consider ourselves as part of the larger artistic community. Music is an incredibly specialized field that requires a daunting amount of specific knowledge. We can easily lose ourselves exploring the vast and deep ocean of musical knowledge—everything from Medieval mass settings to oboe fingerings to the latest music from Norway—and we must have some familiarity with all things musical in order to push against the boundaries of the possible in our own field. Along the way, we can forget that music is one of many artistic pursuits.
The Romantic composers were in intense dialogue with the great philosophers, writers, and artists of their day, and entered into this discussion from a position of strength through their ability to converse about these various disciplines in their own terms. When Schumann proposed his monument to Beethoven, his famous article touched upon the current movements in all the arts. When Nietzsche worked with Wagner, their discussions of philosophy were more influential than their composition lessons. This back and forth served to further the idea that the latest music should be a central concern for anyone interested in the arts.
If we want a place at the table, we must be prepared to converse with other artists on their own terms. How can we ask writers of our day to take our settings of Rumi or Sappho or the pre-Raphaelites seriously when we neglect the thousands of poets writing incredibly beautiful new works today? How can we ask poets to have any interest in our music when we know nothing about their field? How can we expect visual artists to come to our concerts when we neglect their gallery openings? How can we engage a philosopher in discussion on the state of the musical arts when we don’t know the works of the great thinkers of our era?
I would ask us to begin to earn back our place at the table through a serious engagement with the many fields of art beyond music. The next time we propose a setting of poetry from a previous century, I would ask that we explore the works of current writers. The Poetry Foundation would be an excellent place to start, and living poets are often excited about the possibility of working with composers (dead poets tend to be blasé about the experience). When we write pieces that respond to visual art works, we should ask ourselves why we constantly return to the same old paintings and should go to our local museums and galleries in search of something that speaks directly to our era. If we truly want to be part of the discussion of art today, we should be prepared to speak languages other than our own.