The Composer’s Role In Society is one of those subjects that seems to occasion much furrowed-brow reflection (the sort of confab Eddie Izzard would call a “strokey-beard meeting”). I sometimes think that the subject is not really that complicated, but that people would rather not admit that the Role of the Composer is essentially whatever each composer wants it to be—because, I don’t know, maybe they don’t like to think they have no recourse against a piece of music they don’t like. Better to cast about for philosophical justification, and, if possible, blame.
Here’s a couple of recent, pertinent examples, which I point out not because they’re particularly outlandish, but because they’re rather pure versions of the canonical complaints against composers that have been around pretty much forever. The first comes courtesy of musikwissenbloggenschaft, in which Brent gives it the old college try teaching serialism.
i led what has to be my worse discussion session this year in the music history survey i co-teach. the subject was the second viennese school. problematic was: (1) trying to sum up atonality and the twelve-tone method in forty-five minutes, (2) hiding my seething dislike of all-things serial, (3) teaching to the half of my students that have done thorough serial analysis and before the other half that were encountering this sort of music literally for the first time.
(First, a digression. IU’s a pretty big school; might it not be possible to find someone to lead the discussion without a seething dislike of the subject at hand? Because in my experience, not only is such seething dislike well-nigh impossible to hide, but also inevitably results in nothing being learned. And: if one is a teacher, and one’s class is a) bored, and b) having their lack of curiosity validated rather than challenged, perhaps one shouldn’t be so, well, smug about it? I mean, I had a high school history teacher that could make bimetallism exciting.)
Anyway, here’s the money quote, from the student discussion:
“was it music like this that made people stop going to concerts? it all seems so arrogant.”
my response: again, no comment. but i laughed on the inside.
Ha-ha. I amused myself sitting in traffic this morning imagining how this discussion might play out under other hypothetical seething dislikes: the designated hitter rule, Miracle Whip instead of mayonnaise, silent letters in words, &c. (“Was it spelling knife with a k that made people stop doing crossword puzzles? It all seems so arrogant.” I laughed on the inside.) Nevertheless, there is a real response to this that’s far better than “no comment,” and here it is: all composers are arrogant—maybe not personally, but certainly in the act of composition. Putting your name at the top of a piece of music is hardly an act of humility. For Wagner to present me, as a listener, with four hours of Tristan is equal parts generosity and cockiness. What’s more: the composition of a piece you like is just as arrogant as the composition of one you don’t.
And, boy, that rubs some people the wrong way. Via the gimlet-eyed crew at The Detritus Review, I give you Pierre Ruhe.
The telling moment came when Arrell… led a discussion with his [composer] colleagues. His simple question—about how the composer thinks of an audience when writing music—was met with awkward silence, then nervous chuckles.
Did this suggest these local creators share an I’m-too-cool-to-care attitude toward the recipients of their art? When pressed, each composer had a properly respectful answer about the value of audiences….
I encountered something more distressing last month, as a panelist at a national composer’s conference….
When someone in the crowd asked, “Why don’t [living] composers get more attention from the media?” I rashly shot back, “Well, isn’t that the composers’ fault?”
Um… no: if living composers aren’t getting any coverage in the media, that’s because the likes of Pierre Ruhe don’t feel like covering them. Now, Ruhe can like and dislike—and write about—whatever music he wants, but to say that it’s the composers’ fault is just plain goofy. It makes it sound like a moral failing to write music that doesn’t match Ruhe’s particular tastes. (I sometimes spout off my opinions in the Boston Globe, but that doesn’t make them any more “right,” just—in theory, anyway, if not always in practice—more informed and more entertaining.)
Of course, there are composers who want as many people as possible to like their music—and I’ve never met or read about any composer who didn’t want at least somebody to like their music. But here’s the thing: writing music that you think the audience will like is a compositional strategy, not a moral imperative. It is no more or less valid than any other compositional strategy. It produces the same mix of greatness (La Traviata) and crap (“My Heart Will Go On”) as any other compositional strategy. You’re free to swap Violetta and Celine if your taste is different than mine—but that doesn’t mean you get to call James Horner a more “responsible” or less “arrogant” composer than Verdi, just because Verdi doesn’t happen to write music you like. And Schoenberg may not have been aiming at the greatest common factor, but he was writing music that he wanted to hear, and frankly, why is his status as an audience member less privileged than yours?
Music is one of the few things that everybody, regardless of whether they actually know anything about it, feels entitled to have an opinion about. That is, in fact, one of the best things about it. But those are tastes, not moral guidelines or philosophical truths. If a composer isn’t pandering to your preferences, you’re free to not like it—but really, try not to take it so personally.