"Festival" of New Music (1999)
by Jody Nagel
Classical music is a ghetto within the commercial music world. New music is a ghetto within the ghetto of classical music. This university's "Festival" of New Music is but one specific piece of trash lying within the ghetto within the ghetto. Ahh...
I arrive at P---- Hall at 6:00 p.m., to begin setting up my computer and electronic equipment for a concert that will begin at 7:00 p.m. I have reserved this time well in advance, and have double-checked that reservation twice. Upon arrival, a visiting wind quintet is rehearsing a piece for a concert scheduled for the next morning. They insist that they were granted 45 minutes for rehearsal, and, because, they were forced to begin a half hour late, they had no intention of ending. I am simply livid, and can do nothing. As usual, instrumentalists have no regard for the needs of electronic music, and consider it, I guess, a ghetto within a ghetto within a ghetto. Rehearsal for their concert the next day, to them, was an unquestionable priority over any electronic setup for a concert an hour hence. They offered no apology, but accused me of being rude for even suggesting they relinquish the space.
Finally, I begin to setup my gear. I am to play a work of mine for narrator, saxophone, and algorithmically computer-generated sounds. The saxophonist, G---- W----, and the narrator, P---- L----, must be sound-checked for balance. I finally have the computer and electronics wired together and plugged in, and, thankfully, there is sound. We can begin the sound-check for balance. But, at this point, the stage manager (a student with a work-study position) informs me that now we must leave, as the audience must now be let in. I am infuriated. I tell this individual that the audience will simply have to wait, as we MUST perform a sound-check, or there is no point in performing the piece. Sound-checks can not, really, be done days ahead of time, since, when the wiring is dismantled, one must start all over again. This is why I went out of my way, ahead of time, to verify that the space was, indeed, reserved.
At this point, the theory/composition division head, appears. He merely tells me that I should not take the matter so personally. I DO TAKE IT PERSONALLY. Anything which one does not take personally is of NO VALUE. Art and music which is not taken personally has no business being presented, by anyone, to anyone. I am sick to death of being expected to act "professionally," which is a NewSpeak term for acting in an antiseptic emotionless manner. Music is about emotion and thought, feeling and awareness. If, legally speaking, we must remove feeling from our lives, then the art of music is a logical impossibility in our times. Schools of music should admit that they do not teach music any longer, but are merely a mangled sort of capitalistic enterprise making money off of students, and offering them only a pack of lies. Ethically, they should be forced to cease operations.
The concert begins. It contains slightly less than two hours of music. But, because there is only one stage-hand, though at least three were needed, the time between pieces is ten to fifteen minutes in length. The concert lasts until well past 10:00pm. My piece is the first piece of the second half. Do any of my colleagues bother to listen? No way! Does this year's invited guest composer, who hears two of her own works on the first half, stay for the second half? No way! After all, a piece of hers involving guitar, which had been scheduled for the second half, had to be canceled due to a guitarist's broken hand. The local orchestra has a rehearsal at 8:00, so all orchestra faculty performers involved on tonight's concert are scheduled on the first half. They leave at intermission. Half the audience leaves at intermission. The one music professor not on the theory/composition faculty that heard my piece, did so only because he had the misfortune of being scheduled even later in the program than me. I have attended at least 90% of all the performance faculty's recitals in the seven years I have been teaching at this school. I, on the other hand, am never prioritized by them in any serious way.
Composers are always at the mercy of performers. They seem to consider us an irritant. I suppose they are annoyed that Histories-of-Music textbooks account for a thousand years of composers, and only mention performers if they were also a composer or a particular influence on a composer. Composers' music always has at least a chance of lasting well beyond the composer's life, and also beyond the work of performers, even with the advent of audio recordings. Nevertheless, I am dismayed with how performers use the works of composers to their own ends, and have very little regard or understanding of what the composer has accomplished.
This lack of understanding of music - MUSIC, the stuff, not its history, pedagogy, or performance practice, but MUSIC, that which composers create - this lack of understanding of music by many of the instrumentalists and vocalists on the faculty, and by most of the "music education" faculty, without even mentioning the students, is of a magnitude unprecedented in history. The ancient Greeks and Romans, medieval monks, Renaissance thinkers, and educated people of the preceding two centuries, all assumed that musical understanding was essential for one's life. The comprehension of sonic-relationships-in-time was a skill, like mathematics, that had broad application in the general facility and application of one's intellect. I believe that instrumentalists and vocalists (in contradistinction from "musicians," based on the root word "music," and a word which should be used only for individuals that understand music) should never perform music that they do not personally understand and care about. Most of the presentations given on last night's concert were exercises in fruitless futility. The performers, for the most part, did not believe in what they were playing, and they, therefore, were not capable of convincing the audience that what they were doing was sincere. The audience mostly consisted of people that felt obligated to be there, and who mostly couldn't care less about new music. The scope of the fraudulent nature of the entire event was such that any sentient, thinking, feeling human being would feel nauseous. In a word, it was a LIE.
What to do? A vast number of compositions of the 20th century are staggeringly imaginative, inspiring, and impressive achievements. Many, of course, are terrible. But good 20th-century compositions need to be more or less understood to be appreciated. Understanding! Ahh, I thought that was the role of an institution of higher learning. The faculty do not want to bother understanding music. But they want credit for being educated musicians. So as not to have to bother understanding, they accuse any demands that they should understand as being "elitist." Besides the fact that they don't even understand the correct definition and usage of the term "elitist," they are basically wishing to get credit for something they do not deserve. In that sense, they merely reflect our unethical commercial culture; people want something for nothing, they want to give as little as possible while getting as much as possible. The "musicians" want their faculty-load performing credit, and they would just as soon get it by performing easy pieces that have no worth. They then claim the pieces do have worth, and that what had formerly been known as "pieces of worth" are elitist. Rather than causing understanding, within our institutions of higher learning these faculty merely wish to affirm that what everybody already knows is "OK." The students too come with this capitalistic expectation, and most of the faculty just give them what they want. Again, a great LIE. An educated person is one who understands things. There is no way around it.
This university's performing faculty should never perform music they do not understand, respect, and believe in. But they should be learning, with a critical but open-minded eye, so that the exciting and interesting art-music of the 20th century can be recognized, believed in, and presented with excitement and credibility. If they do not, they have no business presenting the music at all. But if they don't, they have no right to call themselves educated musicians, and they should not be teaching within an institution of higher learning. They are a least a century out of date. You can't have it both ways. A university can not keep calling its students and faculty "educated" when they simply aren't. The flip side, however, is that trashy avant-garde-for-its-own-sake music from the past should be recognized, criticized, and rejected. Music of the most recent times, presumably, can be tried out, given a chance, but should at least be attempted to be understood and evaluated. And if a skilled, educated instrumentalist or vocalist just doesn't like some one particular work, they should rightly refuse to play it.
The paleontologists tell us that when "Mog the caveman" used red mud to make a picture depicting Mog and his five buddies successfully downing a mastodon, the cavemen would then stand around and ogle the picture, and the pride of accomplishment in their memories would contribute to group solidarity and social structuring. Groups containing an individual with more-than-usual artistic talent (mutation?) survived better because of this solidarity. The pictures, and the rhythmic drum beatings and musical chantings in rituals, gave to these groups an increase in natural selectivity in survival. So, over hundreds of thousands of years, art and music has contributed to the very survival of our species. In the last two millennia, it has at least contributed to great personal enrichment and satisfaction. But what of the this university's 29th Festival of New Music? I consider last night's new music concert a completely illegitimate event. Future concerts of new music MUST be better organized and MUST be believed in by the performers. If this does not occur, this School of Music should cancel this event from its concert calendar, and forgo credit for being an up-to-date school. I, for one, will never again participate in an event as embarrassingly insincere as that which I endured last night.
Dr. Jody Nagel
December 23, 1999