The Revolt of the Composers

There are 1436 symphony orchestras making music in the U.S.A. today, according to the American Symphony Orchestra League, which keeps track. I suspect that in thirty years there will be 100, or fewer.

The current number is 400-odd more than that of ten years ago, which averages out to one spasmodic birth every nine days.

I submit that, despite appearances, this is not so much the issue of a joyous, nationwide cultural love-in as an unnatural child sired by the so-called musical establishment, the high church of culture composed of symphonic societies, opera guilds, the big conservatories, the musicians’ union. The facts are obscured by a smoke screen of verbiage, practically all of it either obscurantist or downright uninformed.

But the facts are there. Concert Music USA, 1968, a publication of BMI (an organization that divvies up the music-rights business with ASCAP, and should know whereof it speaks), admits with pride that only one third of the music played by symphony orchestras last year was by twentieth-century composers. (The pride comes because the year before, the percentage was still lower.) This, of course, includes such twentieth-century names as Stravinsky, Bartók, Strauss, and Mahler.

The orchestra has not changed its setup or its sound significantly in a hundred years. We can hardly fault it for cranking out the same stuff it was designed for, but by so doing, it has plunged itself into a century-long science-fiction time stasis. Before that, concert music was always new, the latest thing, even as popular music is today. Young Wolfgang Mozart, out on the road to display his latest concertos, wrote his father to the effect that somebody had played a piece that was pretty good despite the fact that it was seven years old. Today, every art gallery show, every record release, every magazine issue, as well as every brand of cigarette and soap, is touted for its newness. What in the world is the matter with “serious” music?

We cannot blame its catatonia on any single villain or misfortune, unless we call “greatness” a misfortune. For the musical establishment has been lured to the brink of disaster by its preoccupation with greatness.

Musical greatness was discovered in Vienna about 150 years ago. It had been going on for some decades, of course, but that was revealed later. Beethoven was the first great musical hero, the prototype. For greatness, there must be massive sound, impressive length, and a looming sense of high tragedy, usually accompanied by breast-beating. The qualities are easy enough to recognize after a little practice. The great composers put great reliance on simple tunes supported by monolithic harmonies. This gives the listener a comfortable sense of security, particularly when it comes to those rousing final chords. But it is disturbing to realize that our yearnings toward greatness are not instinctive, like, mother love, but are injected into us from outside, like the yearning for a new car.

In music, too, we are victims of the hard sell. For example, at the beginning of the present century, New Yorkers could not stomach the music of Richard Wagner. But Walter Damrosch, then conductor of the New York Symphony Society, would not allow his listeners their prejudice. “They don’t like Wagner?” he fumed. “Then they shall hear Wagner until they do like it!” And with heroic defiance not only of the public but of his own board of directors, he played the stuff until the crowd was begging for more.

Similarly, the recent rise to popularity of the music of Gustav Mahler was produced by the powerful combine of the Philharmonic’s latest conductor, Leonard Bernstein, and Columbia Records, which immortalizes it on vinyl. The sales promotion on Mozart, Beethoven, and the other classics was wrapped up long ago by other high-minded citizens of other lands. By the time this music had reached our generation it had become, in the Madison Avenue term, presold.

The critics (I hate to use a dirty word here) have a definite role to play in the situation. It is a rather negative role, either because they are pussyfooting — out of fear that if the present situation should change they might lose their jobs — or because they are just too lazy to deal with today’s new music. So of course they sigh with almost audible relief when they hear something pretty.

“Unabashed melody,” they call it; in other words, melody that should have brought a crippling blush to the composer’s face when he wrote it, but for some reason didn’t. If they were reviewing a serial in a woman’s magazine they would call it “purple prose.” The trouble with unabashed melody is not that it is pretty but that it is too easy; its parts have loosened like the gears of an old car.

The kind of melody used by today’s advanced composers, the kind that the press deplores or ridicules, is unabashed in another way. It leaps back and forth from one end of the gamut to the other and is definitely hard to follow, the first time. The problem is that, mired as we are in the not-so-recent past, we are conditioned to think of melody in nineteenth-century, grand opera terms — as something that can be sung without too much effort, even though it might be played on an orchestral instrument. There is no rational explanation for this, since the fiddles and winds are literally better able to play leaps than the runs and cautious intervals of “unabashed melody.”

I have never read anything about unabashed rhythm, although it is just as basic and embarrassing as unabashed melody. The reason the old boys had to use unabashed rhythm was that the players needed to hang on to that thudding downbeat lest the performance fall apart.

Today’s big orchestras are still hung up on that miserable downbeat, but the new music is moving away from it. Music in the advanced styles is so filled with metrical changes that there is often no sign of regular or even irregular pulse. The effect is dreamlike: the rhythms are no longer limited to the natural rhythms of the human body, as the melodies are no longer limited to those that can be sung by the human voice. It is not exaggerating to say that music has reached a point it has striven to attain for centuries: the point of abstraction or spirituality.

Nobody should be surprised to learn that established performing organizations find the extreme samples of advanced music virtually unplayable. They are not financially able to buy the enormous lengths of time it takes to prepare a performance, nor do conductors have the courage to program the stuff and risk the disapproval of their boards, their public, and the press. Consequently the advanced composers are either (a) not getting played or (b) not getting played well enough. Stefan Wolpe, who is something of a demigod to one advanced school of composers, had two of the three movements of his symphony played by the New York Philharmonic about three years ago. Mr. Wolpe later rated the performance at about 20 percent accurate.

And so it happens that while the great concert halls are busy with the prolongation of yesterday’s sunsets, the dawn is breaking anyway. After 150 years of entrusting others to do their performing jobs for them, composers are waking up to the fact that they have been doublecrossed. And they have gone and started a revolution. They have formed their own performing groups to play their own music.

The first overt step in the secession of the composers from the musical establishment was taken in 1962, when Harvey Sollberger, composerflutist-conductor, and Charles Wuorinen, composer-pianist-conductor, organized the Group for Contemporary Music at Columbia University. After a while, the Rockefeller Foundation got interested, and starting in 1964, groups sprang up in a dozen colleges and universities.

They are, in order of appearance, or rather of bestowal, the Creative Music Associates of Buffalo, led by Lukas Foss; the Contemporary Chamber Players of the University of Chicago, led by Ralph Shapey; the Contemporary Chamber Ensemble at Rutgers University, led by Arthur Weisberg; the Center for New Music at the University of Iowa, led by Richard Hervig; the University of Washington Contemporary Performing Group, led by William Bergsma; the Group for New Music at Portland State College, led by David Bloch; Sarah Lawrence’s Aeolian Chamber Players, led by Lewis Kaplan; Grinned College’s Lenox Quartet; the Mills College Performing Group, led by Nathan Rubin, now merged with the San Francisco Tape Center, at Mills; the Pennsylvania Contemporary Players at the University of Pennsylvania, led by George Rochberg; and the University Circle Contemporary Chamber Ensemble at the Cleveland Institute. Several other groups are functioning, but are less known than those backed by the Rockefeller Foundation.

Performers for these outfits do not necessarily come from establishment training centers. They are being “identified” every day by alert members of the groups, often as undergraduates who play an instrument only for fun. They are helped to learn the music from the inside of it — the way the composer wrote it — so that learning each one is something like learning a little language. Understanding why the notes lie the way they do makes them easier to play, since the player is not always fighting his fingers. In fact, the scales and arpeggios, the “exercises” of establishment training, are as unpopular as spirochetes among the advanced, on the theory that they will stiffen attitudes as well as fingers.

Like good revolutionaries anywhere, these composers claim to be restoring matters to an ideal state that once existed. Their point is that it was not until after the time of Beethoven that composers stopped playing their own music in public. The retreat was so total that only yesterday the phrases “composers’ piano playing’ and “composers’ conducting” were terms of ridicule. It was also a necessity: the job of organizing, managing, rehearsing, and promoting a great symphonic organization left no time for writing music.

It was after the big retreat, when the masses began to sit alongside the nobility in concert halls, that the notion took hold that great music was for everybody; that, like government, music was somehow democratic — and that the public should be the ultimate judge of greatness.

Why democracy should invade the world of music is one of the mysteries of time. No other organized profession would consider such a proposition with a straight face. The armed forces and big business, to name a couple, are organized along strictly fascist lines to accomplish specific objectives, namely to wage war and to make money. The objective of formal music was (a) to create an atmosphere of mystery and awe for the greater glory of God and, later, (b) to divert and intrigue the intellectual and the nobleman. Nevertheless, when it became fashionable for composers to consider posterity, they continued to write for themselves, or at the most for persons they were pretty sure could understand. There have always been composers who are basically entertainers, of course, and that is fine. But to try to force all composers into a clown’s role is task only for other clowns.

A composer is a man who is able to speak in abstractions of a certain type. Like any other kind of speech, the point of this type is to communicate. The point of any communication, from a shout of rage to the caressing of a love object, is first for the communicator to say something and second for somebody to understand. After that, it makes no difference whether two or two million people understand. It is the demagogue and the merchant who need the masses.

By going back into the business of playing their own music, the new composers are liberating themselves from the necessity to secondguess the fickle public. And hundreds of listeners go to their concerts anyway, most of them of college age.

Thinking back over the various concerts and recordings of the advanced music I have heard, I feel certain there is a definite school or style, and yet it cannot be clearly defined. I came away from an early experience with a hallucinatory impression of all kinds of impacting balls and spheres — showers of ball bearings on the strings of a grand piano; billiard balls plashing over the bars of xylophones, marimbas, vibraphones, glockenspiels; bowling balls bounding boisterously along tuned railroad ties; gargantuan beach balls rebounding in slow motion from the net of a resounding trampoline, basso profundo; Ping-Pong balls blowing breezily across the strings of a harp; a BB broadside shattering crystal prisms.

But, although this pointillistic effect is the outstanding and most frequently noted device of the advanced composers, there are others. There are brushstrokes of equal refinement and delicacy that create a distinct and often eerie atmosphere. And then the listener may find himself unexpectedly in the middle of a chaotic, uproarious climax of riot and madness.

The most obvious element that is missing from the sound of this advanced music is what orchestration students call the “pedal,” the sustaining background of steady tone that takes its name from what happens when pianists step on the “loud” pedal. This is not necessarily indicative of a revolt against the piano; quite a bit of advanced music is written for that most romantic of instruments. Instead, it is against the imprecision that the piano pedal has encouraged.

This, then, is the musical revolution — a revolution that is almost completely unnoticed by the press. Its instigators belong to the same generation that is struggling against the old order everywhere, but here, at least, the lines are drawn quite clearly.

On the one hand are the municipal symphonic societies, devoted to the glories of the past but unable, despite vigorous campaigning lay the older music lovers, to support themselves without subsidies. On the other hand are the composer-led contemporary music groups, equally unprofitable, supported by foundations and universities — but attended by the younger crowd.

What I foresee is a kind of symphonic atrophy. I myself, now that I have come under the spell of the new fantasy in music, wonder if I could ever again mist over to the theme from the Unfinished—and I was raised on that stuff. And what about the audiences that are being raised on the advanced styles? Will they ever feel the need to subsidize the old-style municipal symphonies?

It seems unlikely. I suspect that the next generation of solid citizens will support a few great orchestras, as the present generation supports a few great museums. There will be a proliferation of radical smaller groups, manned by composers, playing for anybody who wants to understand, without any hang-ups about having to play “great music.”

The revolution will have been won.