Sealing the Coffin of Twentieth Century Music

by Barry Drogin

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As denizens of the late 1990's, many of us have jumped onto that latest craze, the Internet, in a search for publicity, community and meaning. When Lukas Pairon, a founder of the International Meeting of Contemporary Music Theatre and Opera (since dubbed New Op), established an Internet mailing list server, or c-opera listserv, producers, directors, composers, critics and students were attracted. One of the last category asked the list what "trends" dominated contemporary opera today. I was quick to point out that the dominant "trend" in contemporary opera was that it was dead. Everyone else on the list agreed.

A similar realist perspective must greet any questions on what 21st Century "contemporary classical" music will be. In our media-soaked culture, Twentieth Century contemporary classical music is a niche of a niche market, and with the death of Copland, "cultured" people are hard-pressed to name a single living composer of that ilk, or any of their compositions which they know and have a regular chance to hear. Charles Wuorinen pointed this out years ago, and now it is permanently solidified into fact. Our symphony orchestras have become museums, as have our opera houses. Chamber music has been reduced to "Mostly Mozart," recital debuts and music competitions are not covered with any interest, and academia, whose "conservatories" were supposed to conserve and pass on the traditions, has become the major producer of new work, as New York Times critic Anthony Tommasini noticed.

It is indeed curious that "art for art's sake", which spawned an eclectic mix of "anything goes" creation, has failed, in its freedom, to produce many works of any relevance to the world at large. If 21st Century contemporary classical music continues along this path, then it will cease to exist, so that the question, "What is 21st Century contemporary classical music?", will have become irrelevant, meaningless and absurd. Without performances, without an audience, WHO CARES?

Denying that contemporary classical music has become irrelevant to the rest of the world is a prerequisite to embarking on any "serious" discussion of it. After all, we still have teachers, schools, students, competitions, new music groups, new music venues, new music catalogs of recordings --- someone must be listening! There is electronic music, film music, interactive music, multi-media music --- so what if the concert hall is dead? Composers wrote for the church, for royalty, for the salon --- soon composers will be writing for the loudspeaker, for the background, and in service to the consumer experience. In some cases, computers will write the music and play the music (if we could only get the computers to listen to the music, too, we could all go out and do something more satisfying than listen to it ourselves). European arts councils will fund mediocrity in their own nations, and American arts councils will fund mediocre "community outreach" projects in the states, so that the pressure from government and from audiences towards democratic audience-dictated art forms will dominate whatever is left of the presence of 21st Century contemporary classical music.

It is against this context that self-proclaimed "artists" must create their work. In this, the American iconoclast tradition is useful. That those of us finding our own meanings eventually become fodder for the academics and critics is a sorry but necessary consequence. So I cannot predict what "21st Century" music will be --- I can only proclaim my own manifestos, and assume that some future leeches will imitate it. The history of music is, I believe, written by young composers, so if I have any influence two generations hence, I will be a "style". Like the Mule in Isaac Asimov's "Foundation and Empire", the emergence of genius cannot be foreseen or predicted --- that is part of its genius.

I am an American composer. I am a New York City composer. I am a Jewish composer. I am an Opera composer. Each of these identities, self-defined in many ways, stand as personal proclamations and determinants of the music I write. As an American composer, I am a for-profit composer who watches the Congress defund the National Endowment for the Arts from the sidelines. As a New York City composer, and proud student of the Salzman and Sahl school of music, I find text, subtext, meaning and politics suffusing my work, unlike the non-linear abstract musings of the rest of the country. As a Jewish composer, I find myself the sole practitioner of a theological compositional style based on Hebrew chant, reliant on melodic gestural fragments and, citing a tradition lamenting the destruction of the Second Temple, forbidding the use of instruments. And as an Opera composer, I combine all the previous concerns into an a cappella text-based small-scale style, written for lieder voices and inappropriate for the "opera" voices and "opera" houses of my time.

Yes, my music is difficult, but it is also fun to rehearse. Yes, I use singers with perfect pitch, but about half of the singers out there are so blessed. No, my operas do not sound like film scores with vocal lines tacked on; this is inherent in an a cappella style. Yes, I am reactionary, a neo-Luddite; to me, opera is voice and passion and nothing else, not a multi-media experience or a magical gathering of all the arts, as marketers may have some believe. And yes, audiences of non-musicians find my work relevant, moving and captivating.

I recently performed an excerpt from a scena, or extended scene for voice, in front of a theatre audience, and later, performed the same excerpt in front of a group of contemporary opera professionals. I was surprised to discover that I am now on the exact opposite side of the fence as Milton Babbitt, who promoted the current scene of performances by a musical elite for a musical elite. I never want my music performed in front of a musical elite again. I want to be performed in public parks and regional theatres and open-air ampitheatres. I do not want my work to be on videotape, or in a movie, or over the radio, or transmitted by whatever electronic medium exists a hundred years from now. I want my work to be LIVE, not mediated in any way. I am an admirer of Ad Reinhardt, who painted paintings that cannot be photographed, just as Morton Feldman wrote music that cannot be recorded. I am interested in aspects of music that cannot be notated, that are unique to the performer and the performance.

This is my manifesto. Contemporary classical composers do not exist until they are 40; I was born in 1960. Twentieth Century music is already dead; let's seal the coffin and live on. 21st Century music is my oyster. As an opera composer, I am not the next Verdi, any more than Verdi was the next Mozart. I am the first Drogin.

Note: Just as it is only some of the late works of Ad Reinhardt that cannot be photographed, only some of the works of Morton Feldman cannot be recorded, as several CDs on will attest. My sentence, read carefully, is correct.

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A Musical Contrarian 1999-2007

Last Updated: August 4, 2007