March 31, 2008

Why is contemporary music so bad?

As we remember how great music used to be, I?m reminded of a quote from Adorno?s general theory of why music once was great and now sucks: ?Advice on how best to compose a Rondo is useless as soon as there are reasons?of which artisanl instruction is ignorant?why rondos can no longer be written.? It?s a very important question, even if Adorno came up with many, many wrong answers thereto.

Certainly, government subsidy is part of the problem?the many national endowments back either the totally clich?d crucifix in a jaw of piss and Mapplethorp wannabes or else totally dull ?respectable? art. But then we shouldn?t forget that Mozart and Haydn were happy to live on the lam of many a central European prince. There?s also no evidence that our age is any more ?commercial? than the putatively golden one?Die Z?uberfl?te was a beer-hall musical; Verdi was always questing for the latest ?blockbuster?; and even Wagner, the ultimate anti-social composer, brought out mechanical floating Rheinm?dchen for the premiere of his Ring sage. It?s also very likely that the graduates of Eastman and Julliard are much more professional and better prepared to perform the masterworks than were their 19th-century equivalents. (They are, to paraphrase a quip I once heard, the well-schooled Asians who perform the works of dead Germans for audiences that are mostly Jewish.)

Even if serious music audiences are usually on the ?mature? side (it?s often difficult to find someone under 50 in a concert hall!), the fact is they are large?more people enjoy ?Classical? music now than at any point in Western history. And yet, the actual new stuff produced is almost universally dreadful?it?s either Stcokhausen?s ?Helitcoper Sting Quartet (listen here if you dare) or else the vapid, quaint stylings of Jake Heggie (here?s the most embarrassing sample I could find.)

Obviously, the problem is deep, cultural, and thus it?s almost impossible to articulate why exactly contemporary serious composers are so bad.   

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