Letters

More

column to David Schiff's dismay over orchestras' selling their classical souls to the popular devil. Martin somewhat overstates his case, however, in three ways.

1. Even granted that the masterpieces of Western concert music have been overperformed and overrecorded, it does not follow that "there is no point" in continuing to play them. After all, they are masterpieces, which suggests an inexhaustibility of sorts, even if they can be trivialized in the hands of a mediocre interpreter. Modern theaters still perform Shakespeare, Molière, and Sophocles. Why is it so unthinkable that orchestras would do the same -- play the older musical monuments with attention, insight, and passion, within a context that includes many more-recent masterpieces?

2. I'm not sure the stylistic divide is as simple as the one Martin presents -- namely, that the public rejected contemporary music exactly when that music embraced atonality. After all, Schoenberg's 5 Orchestra Pieces (Op. 16), Berg's 3 Orchestra Pieces (Op. 6), Bartók's Miraculous Mandarin, and Stravinsky's Le Sacre du printemps all tend to be received well in concerts by orchestras that can afford to play them. (One could, of course, make a strong case that several of these pieces are not really atonal -- which underscores the problem of using that term as an absolute criterion, since few will agree on which piece it applies to.) Surely the blame can be more persuasively ascribed to arrogance -- to some recent composers' indifference to the preferences and opinions of their audiences, a direct descendant of the nineteenth-century Romantic delusion of the superior but unappreciated artist.

3. Martin (a distinguished scholar of jazz) naturally identifies popular non- electric styles as providing a way of revitalizing the orchestral concert repertoire. I would simply reply that they're not the only way. The language of tonality is far from used up, even within non-popular idioms. Pieces such as Rachmaninoff's Symphonic Dances, Prokofiev's Romeo and Juliet, and Britten's Variations on a Theme of Frank Bridge (all written within a few years of 1940) display unique and sophisticated tonal languages that are all pregnant with developmental possibilities. Unfortunately, in training young composers we don't often show them the fruitfulness of this music, because we have such a poor grasp of twentieth-century tonal harmony -- and lots of remarkable music is dismissed as "conservative," "sentimental," or "recidivist," to the detriment of composers, audience, and orchestras alike.

Charles J. Smith


Advice & Consent

In their reply to my essay Do We Consume Too Much? Paul Ehrlich and his co-authors ("No Middle Way on the Environment," December Atlantic) cite the economist James Meade's assessment that "pollution and the exhaustion of natural resources depend and will depend in the future on the absolute level of total economic activity" in the world. The principle that economic growth or prosperity must lead to resource depletion and ecological degradation, an article of faith for Ehrlich, is simply false. The evidence overwhelmingly shows that people in poor societies who hunt and gather for resources can denude the landscape, while wealthy nations can deploy technologies that produce food sustainably, control pollution, and preserve nature. The "World Scientists' Warning to Humanity," which my critics invoke, does not say that the world must produce and consume less overall, only that it must produce and consume differently. It declares, "We must, for example, move away from fossil fuels to more benign, inexhaustible energy sources to cut greenhouse gas emissions and the pollution of our air and water."

I did not argue, as my critics charge, that "concern over the depletion of natural resources and the impact of their current levels of use is misplaced." Rather, like the "World Scientists," I proposed that society should respond to this concern by adopting technologies now available or plainly in view that can sustain greater global economic activity without imperiling natural systems or depleting natural resources.

Ehrlich and his colleagues argue that a series of misconceptions underlies my thesis. First, they say, I fail to understand that since natural resources are finite, the expansion of the global economy must inevitably lead to depletion and scarcity. In their view, pollution and depletion vary directly with the absolute level of global economic activity. In other writings Ehrlich expresses this assumption in a formula that measures adverse environmental impact as a function of population, affluence, and technology. Because technology appears in the numerator of Ehrlich's equation, it can only increase the bad impacts of population and affluence. Yet smart and environment-friendly technology should appear in the denominator, since it diminishes these impacts. If the world adopts cleaner and smarter technologies (for example, more-efficient cars), it does not have to use more resources to produce more of the things people want. The enormous gains in economic activity associated with the software industry, to take another example, did not create a lot of pollution or exhaust resources.

Jump to comments
Presented by
Get Today's Top Stories in Your Inbox (preview)

A Technicolor Time-Lapse of Alaska's Northern Lights

The beauty of aurora borealis, as seen from America's last frontier


Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register. blog comments powered by Disqus

Video

A Time-Lapse of Alaska's Northern Lights

The beauty of aurora borealis, as seen from America's last frontier

Video

What Do You Wish You Learned in College?

Ivy League academics reveal their undergrad regrets

Video

Famous Movies, Reimagined

From Apocalypse Now to The Lord of the Rings, this clever video puts a new spin on Hollywood's greatest hits.

Video

What Is a City?

Cities are like nothing else on Earth.

Video

CrossFit Versus Yoga: Choose a Side

How a workout becomes a social identity

Video

In Online Dating, Everyone's a Little Bit Racist

The co-founder of OKCupid shares findings from his analysis of millions of users' data.

Writers

Up
Down
More back issues, Sept 1995 to present.

Just In