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Calling the New York Times's Bluff


We had a number of inventive ideas for photos to accompany this column, including a doctored image of Christian and Bernard Holland sword-fighting with rolled-up copies of the Times. Unfortunately, we did not have photos of Christian or Mr. Holland, and our early attempts at an "artist's impression" proved less than fruitful. In the end, we opted for the lackluster image above, Hey, we never claimed to be graphic designers.
"As for disappearing audiences, no amount of managing will solve that one. Classical music has only itself to blame. It has indulged the creation of a narcissistic avant-garde speaking in languages that repel the average committed listener in even our most sophisticated American cities. Intelligent, music-loving and eager to learn, such listeners largely understand that true talent and originality must find their own voice. What they do not understand is why the commitment to reach and touch listeners in the seats does not stand at the beginning of the creative process, as it did with Haydn and Mozart. This kind of art-for-art's-sake has much to answer for..."

"Fleeing audiences are one more symptom, the cause being a public art that has been abandoned by its avant-garde and uses up its given natural resources with profligacy. Audiences are not to blame. They are smarter than Elliott Carter and Milton Babbitt want to think they are."
-- from "How to Kill Orchestras", by Bernard Holland.
New York Times, Sunday June 29, 2003

· · · · · · ·

July 1, 2003

Letters to the Editor
The New York Times
229 West 43rd Street
New York, NY 10036

Dear Editor:

"How to Kill Orchestras", Bernard Holland's recent article in the New York Times (Sunday, June 29, 2003), places far too much of the blame for problems facing US orchestras on those he describes as the "avant-garde", namely Mr. Elliott Carter and Mr. Milton Babbitt. It is ironic that Mr. Holland chooses these two as scapegoats, as neither composer has received many orchestral performances in the United States. For example, the last time that the New York Philharmonic played a work by Mr. Babbitt was in 1984, and Mr. Carter had a commission canceled by the orchestra in the 1990s. Since both are, regrettably, neglected by most American orchestras, they cannot be blamed for the decline of the orchestra in this country.

There is, indeed, a growing audience for new music, enthusiastic and vital. As was mentioned in Mr. Holland's article, they could be seen in full force this past season at several New York concerts, including a performance (at Miller Theatre) of all of Mr. Carter's string quartets. A glance around the auditorium at these events suggests that they are attended by a significantly younger demographic than the average New York Philharmonic audience. New music doesn't kill audiences; it has the potential to grow them.

The crowds at recent new music concerts are not just attracted to modern music, but also to the excellence, commitment, and preparation exhibited by the performers who present these works. If American orchestras could present programs with a similarly high level of artistry and enthusiasm on a consistent basis, whether they include Beethoven or Babbitt, audiences would return to the symphony.

Sincerely,

Christian Carey, Ph.D.
Assistant Professor of Music,
William Paterson University of New Jersey

· · · · · · ·

The above was sent in response to comments made in an article by Bernard Holland, a music critic on the staff of the New York Times. Unfortunately, the Times declined to print it, preferring to allow Holland's ill-tempered and inaccurate barbs about two of America's most venerable and distinguished composers to stand unchallenged.

In "How to Kill Orchestras", Holland took a swipe at nearly every member and aspect of the orchestral food chain: managers, conductors, performers, philanthropists, the cultural mores of the cities wherein orchestras reside, etcetera. While I disagreed with much of what he said, I only felt qualified to reply when it came to one topic of his critique; his suggestion that composers were somewhat to blame for the current woes of classical music in the United States.

Interestingly, he did not take aim at composers who are currently being programmed with any degree of regularity by American orchestras. For example, he could have cited the minimalist or neo-romantic composers -- Steve Reich, John Adams, Philip Glass, John Corigliano, and Aaron Kernis, to name a few. The reason for this is simple: these composers write music in a more accessible vein. Please note that I am not suggesting that there is anything wrong with writing in an accessible style. However, it would blunt Holland's argument (that composers are to blame for the decline of classical music itself) if he attacked music that is reasonably well-received by many of today's symphonic audiences.

Instead, Holland decided to dredge up an old and favored tradition at the Times: bashing the "American avant-garde", post-War composers who write modernist music. The paper has a long history of this. Its (recently deceased) former head music critic, Harold Schonberg, was known for his hostility towards modernism during his tenure there (1960-1980). In her recent book The Music of My Time, Joan Peyser recounts how, in 1988, another arts editor forced her to rewrite a piece for the Times. Peyser had written the article to celebrate 12-tone composer Charles Wuorinen's fiftieth birthday, but instead was compelled to inject the piece with a certain amount of negativity in order for it to pass muster.

This environment, a veritable breeding ground for stylistic prejudice posing as criticism, in part explains Holland's disrespectful comments about Babbitt and Carter, despite the fact that they otherwise seem rather disconnected from the subject at hand. It is a knee jerk reaction -- a brand of philistinism that reflexively embraces the familiar and comfortable and attacks the challenging and adventurous.

However, the Times should not get a pass for continuing this sort of agendizing just because they have made it a habit for so long. There is no excuse for the continued vilification of modern music by an institution that would like to maintain that it covers topics in a fair and balanced way. It is unfortunate that venomous rants like Holland's are still printed in the paper, because in recent years the Times has taken some steps to give its writing about recent classical music greater variety. Most noticeably, the paper brought on board a couple of critics who write eloquently about modern music, namely Anthony Tommasini and Paul Griffiths.

One bright spot on the horizon for modern classical music is the increasing catholicity of young listeners. Twenty-something and Thirty-something music fans have begun to embrace experimental music from a host of genres, from Indie Rock to IDM to Avant Jazz. What's more, many artists who work in these styles are beginning, more and more, to name check experimental classical composers as influences.

If recent new music concerts in New York City (such as those mentioned in my letter above) are any indication, this phenomena may be beginning to cross over to the experimental wing of classical music. Given the graying audiences and stodgy programming found today at many large classical institutions (symphonies, ballet, and opera companies), it is exciting to see that a vital and engaged audience is building for the adventurous programs being presented by small new music ensembles. It would be a delicious irony if the "outsiders" of concert music, who have been relegated to obscurity by the classical music establishment for years, might end up having the last laugh, finding a new generation of listeners in the very same Indie audience that has encouraged experimental artists in popular and jazz music.

In coming months, File Under ? will examine several modernist American composers -- key figures who push boundaries and defy the conventions of classical music's conservatism here in the US. Not only have composers such as Elliott Carter, Milton Babbitt, and Charles Wuorinen been bold iconoclasts, unrepentant in the face of countless diatribes like Bernard Holland's Times piece, but they have also composed many works that are engaging and inspiring music. I hope that you'll take the opportunity to listen to some of it before believing those who possess the poisonous pens.

Next Month: The music of Milton Babbitt.

-- Christian Carey

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