Bursting the Bubble

Bursting the Bubble

In my heart of hearts I know that lists of the greatest “fill in the blank” are ultimately pretty silly. (E.g. How can you narrow the best barbeque in the United States down to only ten places; have you actually eaten in every barbeque joint in this country?) Yet I still get pretty worked up whenever there’s a classical music list and there’s nothing contemporary or American on it, or when it’s a music list and there’s absolutely no classical on it at all. Readers here and elsewhere have already been overexposed to my thoughts about it time and time again.

I’m actually trying my best to recover from list-o-mania. So I hesitate to say anything about the National Association of Record Merchandisers-endorsed list of the “200 Definitive Albums” which completely ignores classical music (unless you count Andrea Bocelli) yet has room for an album by Kenny G. And I’m still making a valiant attempt not to be insulted by last year’s 1001 Albums You Must Hear Before You Die. Though this colossal work pools the collective minds of “90 leading international critics” and claims to feature music of all genres, it too manages to completely ignore anything coming from the Western classical music tradition despite featuring several recordings directly inspired by it. According to the collective minds of 90 experts, you can go through your whole life and not worry about hearing Mussorgsky’s great solo piano composition Pictures at an Exhibition or Ravel’s ubiquitous orchestration of it (good luck); but whatever you do, don’t miss out on Emerson, Lake and Palmer’s version!

I guess we’re now allowed to die without having to listen to classical music. But perhaps recordings of older pieces issued between 1955 and 2005 (the 1001 list’s chronological markers) are automatically disqualified, since that music was actually not composed during those years. O.K., there’s still a vital half century’s worth of repertoire to pick something from. It’s hard to imagine how these erudite arbiters of taste—they even namedropped North Indian classical santoorist Shivkumar Sharma (!)—were able to tune out absolutely everybody in classical music. They even bypassed Philip Glass, who has collaborated with a wide range of folks on their list, from Ravi Shankar and Paul Simon to Patti Smith and David Byrne. Admittedly, I’m 42 (which is a reasonable guess for the median age of these critics) and I’ve heard less than half the albums they claim I can’t die before hearing. I share their passion for Joni Mitchell, My Bloody Valentine, and even the Smashing Pumpkins, but I still haven’t heard Dexys Midnight Runners who made it onto their list twice. I’ve clearly got lots of catching up to do since I’ve already wasted so much of my precious time on all that classical falderal. Oops, I’ve been sucked into list-o-mania again, sorry…

But before you think I’m revisiting an old polemic, all of my fuming while reading through these latest lists did inspire some new lines of questioning about our relationship to the music we care about and its seemingly fragile relationship to the world beyond us. It made me wonder. First I’ll ask all the composers and performers of new music out there: how much music do you actively listen to? How much of it is contemporary classical music (that term again, sorry) or the older stuff? How much does what you listen to jibe with what is on these lists? And then, additionally, for all the other dedicated “new music” aficionados who regularly read this site, what makes you want to listen to this music? What brought you to it for the first time? Why is “new music” so far removed from the radar of folks who are otherwise quite music savvy (e.g. I’m thrilled yet shocked that folks like Baaba Maal and the Louvin Brothers got on this list)? Of course, everyone is welcome to answer any of these questions here and pose additional ones of their own.

Meanwhile, one last source of endless confusion for me: Why are folks on both sides of what I thought was an imaginary divide at this point so unaware of what’s on the other side? I had dinner the other night with someone in the classical camp who is pretty with it, yet she had never heard of the Magnetic Fields. We’ve all got war stories about the snobbery of classical music, particularly those of us who cavort in things contemporary. But the snobbery seems to go both ways. In the circle of folks who claim to be broadminded, why has music now become a catch-all phrase for every genre except classical? Maybe, once and for all, it’s time to earnestly knock down this wall, or burst this bubble. (Choose whatever metaphor you like.) But how?

NewMusicBox provides a space for those engaged with new music to communicate their experiences and ideas in their own words. Articles and commentary posted here reflect the viewpoints of their individual authors; their appearance on NewMusicBox does not imply endorsement by New Music USA.

29 thoughts on “Bursting the Bubble

  1. Colin Holter

    I still haven’t heard Dexys Midnight Runners who made it onto their list twice.

    The biggest problem with that list is that only two of the three Dexys albums are on it. Young men of my generation are prone to hyperbole when discussing popular music, it’s true, but I am being 100% straight with you when I say that the Dexys Midnight Runners discography is one of the best “pieces” of any kind I’ve ever heard. Listen to them as a single three-cycle work.

  2. Frank J. Oteri

    Dexys Midnight Runners
    Colin, here I was thinking we could reduce Dexys Midnight Runners’ inclusion down to one disc in order to sneak in some Terry Riley or Donald Martino… Go figure. What to do now?

  3. mmcginn

    I am a composer of new music (plug: http://www.mcginnmusic.com) and my older brother is a music journalist/critic. We grew up on two different musical paths although we started out liking similar music (I remember, at a young age I remind you, sneaking into his room to listen to his Motley Crue and Van Halen tapes…). I know that our “lists” would be vastly different.

    I think the problem is trying to remove yourself from the list. Removing your likes and dislikes and focussing on what has redeeming value. I would have a very hard time putting Elton John on my list as well, because as Mr. Oteri has put it, “I just don’t get Elton John.”

    It also seems to me that music journalists become “stuck” in their own musical tastes. My brother got into early garage rock and has never really gotten out of it. It may be that we, as new music composers, are a little more flexible in what we can listen to (or are willing to listen to). Hell, if we can listen to, and like, 4’33”, we can listen to and like many different things…

  4. Matthew

    For me, it’s a matter of available time—the popular music I tend to listen to is the stuff I liked back when I was a teenager, when I actually had the energy and wherewithal to try and keep up with every genre out there. Now, with a few temporary exceptions, the only genre I try and stay on top of is contemporary classical. Not to say I’m not open to serendipitous discoveries from other styles, but I’m not actively seeking them out. Not enough hours in the day.

    I do think that any 1001-record list that doesn’t at least include classical albums that did make an impact on pop culture (Van Cliburn’s Tchaikowsky, say, or at least one Glass or Reich album, or even—shudder—The Three Tenors) is flat-out ridiculous and can safely be ignored. Unfortunately, though, until classical cultural news actually appears in mainstream outlets, those outlets won’t realize how sizeable our untapped niche market is. Maybe Meet the Composer can convince Entertainment Weekly to let them subsidize a contemporary classical record review in every issue. (Heck, I’d do it for free.)

  5. Marc

    1) I’d rather not take my cues for what to listen to from the National Association of Record Merchandisers.

    2) Classical albums in an overwhelmingly pop list have to come up against another set of criteria, that of best of their kind. There’s only one White Album, but there’s 1,002 recordings of Pictures at an Exhibition. Do you go with Reiner’s super-fast one or Celibidache’s super-slow one?

    3) List-making albums are usually judged for their impact beyond the album. Cliburn’s Tchaik belongs to be there under this criterion, as does Reich’s Drumming. But their cumulative impacts are seen as less than that of other albums. I don’t know why that is. Maybe it’s just that a lot of people don’t like listening to classical music.

  6. philmusic

    It seems to me that lists created to tell the masses what to like and what to dislike are snobbery pure and simple. Its ironic to think that the “popular musics” world, or parts of it, could be snobbish.

    Then again money is power .

    Phil’s Page

  7. A.C. Douglas

    What’s most interesting about your above article is why you would in the first place have expected classical music new or old to show up on the Best Of lists of prole entities such as the National Association of Record Merchandisers and Cassell Illustrated (or any one of a gazillion others). It’s time you and your new music brethren got it through your heads that by its very nature classical music, new and old, is and has always been an elite enterprise, and that no amount or degree of “broad-minded,” equalitarian posturing will ever change that. There’s nothing the least bit imaginary about that “imaginary divide” you speak of. It’s as real and solid as the rock against which Dr. Johnson all but broke his foot in refutation of Bishop Berkeley.

    Wake up and smell the coffee, and get over it.


  8. SonicRuins

    Mr. Douglas,

    I don’t buy your assertion that classical music has “always” been an elite enterprise. Certainly, at certain points during history it has, but it has also gone through more populist periods. But that’s not why I’m replying. Even if classical music is inherently ‘elite,’ why does that preclude it from a list of ‘music?’ If it is music, why shouldn’t if be part of a list of recordings? I don’t see how whether classical music is elite or not even matters. Please elucidate my ignorant mind.

  9. scottgendel@hotmail.com

    I think it’s worth noting that these lists are about albums you must hear. The rock/pop industry is organized around recording. Recording engineers are a huge part of the album-creation process, and it’s all geared towards home listening experiences. On the other hand, classical music is really written for live performance, and while recordings of it can be very effective, they are extremely rarely actually engineered to exist as independent artistic entities for home enjoyment. I mean, there are certainly amazing recordings out there, but they still exist as one facet of a piece of classical music, whereas rock/pop albums really are meant as art unto themselves. Just a theory…

  10. A.C. Douglas

    SonicRuins wrote:

    Mr. Douglas, I don’t buy your assertion that classical music has “always” been an elite enterprise. Certainly, at certain points during history it has, but it has also gone through more populist periods.

    Never is the entire history of what we today call classical music (old or new) has it ever been popular (populist) music. Never — as in, not ever.

    Even if classical music is inherently ‘elite,’ why does that preclude it from a list of ‘music?’ If it is music, why shouldn’t if be part of a list of recordings? I don’t see how whether classical music is elite or not even matters. Please elucidate my ignorant mind.

    Because classical music by its very nature inhabits a different world — a different planet — from the world of the interests of the masses, and plays no part in their lives by their very nature. So, why would anyone expect a Best Of music list put out by entities or publications that pander to mass tastes to include classical music in that list? The very idea is absurd.


  11. Daniel Wolf

    In general, and strange as it may seem, I agree with A.C. Douglas that art music is and always has been an affair of a minority. There have always been more popular musics, but prior to mechanical reproduction, their presence in the historical record was minimal.

    I do object, however, to an unqualified use of the term “elite”. There are several ways to define an elite, and the most power-charged definitions of the term are precisely those which are most irrelevant to new and classical musics, as the communities around those music do not formally represent either political or economic elites, and participating in those musics is neither prerequisted by nor will it lead to membership in those elites.

    (There are, in fact, power elites within the musical communities themselves, exercising control over a microeconomy of institutions, resources and “prestige”. This is a situation which has indeed led to injustice and private tragedies; such abuses of power in even the most modest of environments are still wrong and have to be called out as such. But in the larger scale of war, peace, and putting bread on the table, it’s (to follow Morton Feldman) a mad battle for crumbs, and the entire classical and new music community could vanish in a moment and not alter the circumstances of the political and economic elites).

    Art musics can, however, take advantage of their minority, or even marginal, status, and use the license that comes with that status to critique the world that the power elites have made, to project a alternative to that world, or simply respond to that world by not taking it all too seriously. The old term “avant guard”, despite its miltary origins, has some utility to describe this role, but it’s not always clear who is out in front, and does a poor job of conveying the transgressive and “out of the box” potential of an art music.

  12. william

    Daniel writes: “…the communities around those music do not formally represent either political or economic elites, and participating in those musics is neither prerequisted by nor will it lead to membership in those elites.”

    Major symphony orchestras such the Berlin Philharmonic, the Vienna Philharmonic, the Czech Philharmonic, and the Conzertgebouw are often used as expressions of cultural nationalism and status. The Berlin Philharmonic was strongly supported and specially funded by the West German government to stand as a symbol of “freedom” in West Berlin. The Philharmonica Hungarica, which was disbanded about the time the Wall came down, was consciously supported and funded as a cold war symbol for exiled Hungarians. And the Sudenten German Philharmonic (now named the Bamberger Symphony) was an orchestra that stood as a symbol for the Sudenten Germans exiled from Czechosolvakia after the Second World War.

    These orchestras were, and are, used quite consciously as symbols of national identity and cultural status. This is also why international tours by such orchestras are often accompanied by diplomats and embassy events attended by political and financial elites.

    These practices have a long history in classical music. A legacy of feudalism influenced European culture well into nineteenth century, that still informs the patrician, autocratic, and hierarchical social structures of today’s symphony orchestras. Concert dress serves as a simple illustration. In the 18th century, aristocrats employed orchestra musicians in a status similar to household servants, and to this day, male musicians still wear tails for concert clothing, because it was the typical dress of the butlers with whom they were once categorized.

    Aristocrats controlled cultural patronage, and the art they supported reflected their concepts of status, power, and patrician identity. European art thus tended to signify a culturally isomorphic ideology of transcendentally justified autocracy. From the crown of Charlemagne to the Versailles Palace of the Sun King to the literature glorifying British colonialism, the purpose of European art was often to celebrate and strengthen the power and authority of people who thought themselves the recipients of a God-given superiority.

    In the 19th century, these concepts of genetic, aristocratic superiority were appropriated by the bourgeoisie and transformed into theories of racial supremacy and cultural nationalism. These views, both aristocratic and nationalistic, still strongly formulate the heritage of highly traditional orchestras such as the Vienna Philharmonic, which only ended its policies of forbidding membership to women and people of color in 1997. Those familiar with the elite orchestra might remember that its chairman openly referred to the ensemble as “white men performing white male composers for a white public.”

    The diamond and mink studded patrician rituals surrounding classical music’s performances are also especially notable at institutions like the Metropolitan Opera. There too, we see how classical music is used as a celebration and assertion of elite power and status. And in the United States, one can also see these expressions in the way halls are so often named after wealthy donors.

    One might also note the demographic of classical music in the United States. The performers and publics are almost 100% white, exactly because groups such as African-Americans and Hispanics have seldom been allowed into the circles of elitism and exclusive cultural prestige that informs the ethos of classical music. We sometimes smugly claim they are not present because they have their own colorful musical heritage. We all too easily forget that classical music is part of the heritage of every European and American, regardless of their skin color. We practice musical racism through elitist bourgeois essentialism that presumes to define black and white tastes and abilities.

    Please forgive any errors. I have no time to proof this.

    William Osborne

  13. philmusic

    “It’s time you and your new music brethren got it through your heads that by its very nature classical music, new and old, is and has always been an elite enterprise,”

    Then again one might ask where we are talking about. The United States and UK? Perhaps. Canada, where pop musicians can be government supported through their radio? Europe? Certainly not today and even yesterday not entirely. Japan and Asia? I’m not sure about that one either.

    Perhaps these other countries don’t count. By the way, were their any Italian rock bands on the lists? That’s not snobbery that’s jingoism.

    I remember how hard it was to convince kids of the fact that the Rolling Stones earned more money than your typical Orchestra member—they just wouldn’t believe it.

    Also, there is a certain amount of controversy among “rock writers” over bands like ELP which are not considered “true” rock bands as they have too much “classical” technique.
    So its ok to have an Ivey League degree in English literature and “rock” but if you have a performance degree in an instrument you can’t. Go figure.

    Phil’s Page

  14. Tom DePlonty

    Writing as a new music enthusiast, not a composer or performer: I came to new music as a result of musical training. (It would be nice to hear from a non-musician, wouldn’t it?) It goes back to my first piano teacher, who always made sure I was working on some Baroque, classical, Romantic, and modern repertoire. I liked the modern piano literature, and the interest expanded from there.

    Regarding “the divide” and elitism: in my work I have had the luck to know many people who would be considered well-educated and cultured by any standard. It’s my experience that many of the same people who enjoy modern art, theatre, and literature, know very little about new music. They consider it to be art in a language they just don’t understand. And paradoxically, if I try to advocate it to them, there’s an assumption that I like new music because, as a trained musician, I’ve got the secret decoder ring. For whatever reason, the same people don’t perceive a similar barrier to enjoying other kinds of modern art.

  15. philmusic

    Never is the entire history of what we today call classical music (old or new) has it ever been popular (populist) music. Never — as in, not ever.

    Not True! Toscanini, and through him, classical music was very popular in the 1940-1950.

    Phil’s Page

  16. william

    Thank you for your very, very important message, Tom. Education is the key factor in creating appreciation for classical music. Our brains are much more innately visual than aural. All the other performing arts have much stronger visual orientations, and that is probably why they are easier to appreciate in the absence of specific training.

    I have lived in Europe for the last 28 years. One of the first things I noticed when I arrived was the relative lack of demographic stratification among the publics for classical music. We lived in Turin, Italy where my wife was solo-trombone of the Royal Opera. Italians from every social class went to the opera (and they could afford the prices because the government subsidizes the arts.) This also changed the atmosphere in the performances, because they all knew the operas and if they heard something wrong, they really let the musicians know. At times it almost seemed like I was at a soccer match. Just a few weeks ago they shouted a famous tenor off the stage at La Scala during a performance of Aida.

    I should also note that institutions such as the Vienna and Munich State Operas are so popular that they have to sell their tickets using a lottery system. Due to State funding, Germany has 23 times more full-time, year-round orchestras per capita than the USA, and approximately 28 times more full-time, year-round opera houses.

    This sort of connection and availability cannot be compared to the situation that exists in the States. The two principle causes are the lack of music education in our schools, and the lack of access caused by the absence of public funding.

    Rightwingers often claim that state funding produces mediocrity. So what are we to think, that the Berlin Philharmonic, the Concertgebouw, the Gewandhaus, the Vienna Philharmonic, the Paris Opera, the Czech Philharmonic, and La Scala, just to name of few institutions, are no good? It is amazing how obtuse Americans can be about these issues. It is almost as if they have been brainwashed.

    The problems of arts funding, and the forms of education and access it would allow, are seldom the topic of genuinely serious and sustained political discussion. The American cultural and political system has become so isomorphic that most Americans do not even consider that alternatives could be created to institutions such as network television and Hollywood. With only one percent of the military’s 2004 budget of $396 billion (which would be 3.96 billion) we could have 132 opera houses lavishly funded at $30 million apiece. (That much funding would put them on par with the best opera houses in the world, likely lead to forms of expression more distinctly American.) The world would have never seen such a massive support of opera.

    The same sum could support 264 spoken-word theaters at $15 million each. It could subsidize 198 full-time, year round world-class symphony orchestras at $20 million each. Or it could give 79,200 composers, painters and sculptors a yearly salary of $50,000 each. Remember, that’s only one percent of the military’s 2004 budget, or 3.92 billion. Since then the military’s normal budget has risen by 50 billion to 450 billion. The Iraq War has been budgeted separately and is now approaching 2 trillion dollars. The amount of arts funding and arts education that could be created with the military’s budget increase staggers the mind. And the amount of arts that could have been created with the almost 2 trillion spent on the current war are simply beyond comprehension. (And this is to say nothing of other issues, such as national health insurance, mass transit, better schools, rebuilding our massive ghettos, etc.)

    These examples awaken us to the Orwellian realities of our country and how different it could be. Given our wealth, talent, and educational resources, we are losing our chance to be the Athens of the modern world.

    Anyway, thank you for mentioning education. With proper funding like Europeans have, we would not have to spend so much time on these silly, superficial notions that classical music needs to some how emulate pop to survive. Some pop is really good music, but education is the key to the problem.

    William Osborne

  17. Daniel Wolf


    I have to disagree with you on two points here. The first can be described as blaming the servant for the sins of the master, in this case, those who make music and are engaged listeners are being blamed for the political elite that attempts to instrumentalize musics for their own purposes. This instrumentalization is always a potential in music, but — as a counterforce — music has an equal potential to transgress or subvert.

    My second disagreement is in identifying the micro-political problems within musical communities with the larger power elites. The situations may well have parallels, but they are not precisely so . The totally retrograde hiring practices of the Vienna Phil (and other orchestras) is a practice that is well behind the legal norms of Austria; and the foot dragging that has gone on as the orchestra has been forced by external forces to change practices is simply, and sadly, typical of many conservative institutions when confronted with a dynamic well beyond their either their experience or control. In this case, it is a local example of a global phenomena, the insecurtity of men faced with a radically altered labor market in which their traditional roles are no longer assured.

  18. A.C. Douglas

    William wrote: Education is the key factor in creating appreciation for classical music. Our brains are much more innately visual than aural. All the other performing arts have much stronger visual orientations, and that is probably why they are easier to appreciate in the absence of specific training.

    Apropos the above, here’s an excerpt from a lengthy argument of mine of July 2004, “An Audience For Classical Music”, which caused a bit of a stir in the blogosphere at the time (the full piece can be read here):

    So, if pandering to proles is not the answer, what, then, is? I’ll risk a tentative answer, but in fundamental principle only, as I’ve neither the foggiest notion how, nor the professional expertise necessary, to put the thing into actual practice.

    The alpha and omega of it is that a hardcore audience for classical music can, in huge part, be created only by targeting the very young. If you fail to get ’em very young, you mostly don’t get ’em at all.

    And that targeting must begin with the pre-kindergarten young, and continue at least through early adolescence. Schools, both public and private, cannot do the job, although they have their place in the campaign. Neither, strange to tell, can parents, although they, too, have their place. In today’s world, the single most important — overwhelmingly important — entity in the promotion of classical music is none other than the commercial media, cable and broadcast TV most especially, via its content, not via commercials, public service or paid-for. If classical music is not sold there, it will remain largely unsold no matter what else is done. Classical music must be made a part of the very air children breathe, and only the commercial media can accomplish that.

    And it’s important how it’s sold, too. If it’s sold as merely another “stream” flowing into the “river” of music the campaign will fail — abjectly. It must be sold as the elite enterprise it in truth and in fact is; something to aspire to. And that means the purveyors and performers of classical music must never succumb to the temptation to ape the outward trappings of the world of mass entertainment, or dumb down classical music’s content or presentation, in the false and doomed hope of thereby attracting a greater following. There must never be permitted a disconnect between projected image and the true reality of the thing itself (i.e., classical music’s fundamentally elite nature). In marketing terms, classical music must be sold honestly as a vintage Chateau Latour, not a sexily packaged, reasonably priced Napa Valley Merlot or, worse, some concocted hybrid as is today attempted in classical music presentations featuring so-called “crossover” music.


  19. william

    Just to help people understand the Orwellian numbers I mentioned above, I did some calculations. If the 50 billion increase in the military budget over the last three years had gone to the NEA, it would have increased its budget 384 times. If the 2 trillion spent on the Iraq War had gone to the NEA, its budget would have increased 15,384 times.

    What would such proportional increases mean for the AMC, which hosts this webzine? If it were getting ten thousand dollars from the government now, it would rise in the first case to 384 thousand. In the second, it would rise to 15.3 million. That’s a lot of new music. These proportional incrases spread over all of the arts would change the course of history and indeed make America the Athens of the modern world. These numbers might seem ridiculously idealistic, but it is not so different than the sort of funding available in countries like Austria, Norway, Sweden, Holland, France, Germany, and Switzerland.

    In fact, the model Douglas mentions concerning the role of the mass media in the arts fits well with the actual practice of what happens in Europe. All European countries operate massive state radio and television networks. The BBC, RAI in Italy, the ARD in Germany, ORF in Austria, etc. These are not simply less watched secondary stations like PBS. They are the main stations in Europe, and the most watched. Cultural programming is considered their principle function, second only to news reporting. Almost all of these State networks own and operate a system of radio orchestras. One of the principle missions of the State radio orchestras is the presentation of new music. In addition, the European Union funds television networks such as ARTE which is devoted entirely to the arts.

    The European view toward funding is not based on elitism or a dismissal of popular culture, but on an understanding that an unmitigated capitalism is not a seamless, all-encompassing paradigm – particularly when it comes to cultural expression. Americans, by contrast, have allowed a massive, strictly capitalistic commercial media to become a totalizing social force in their society. The results have become Orwellian. Under these totalizing circumstances, it is little wonder that even here on NMB we constantly read that new music must emulate commercial music if it is to survive.

    William Osborne

  20. Frank J. Oteri

    A.C.: I just finished my third cup of strong black Kenya Estate Peaberry as part of my daily caffeine intake, so I regularly “smell the coffee.” But I still can’t agree with your assessment that the compilers of these lists are all “prole entities.”

    A few years back, before my life got much more hectic, I was a regular participant in the National Association of Record Merchandisers’ Classical and Jazz Issues Forum as a delegate from the board of directors of the Music Critics Association of North America. At the time, the NARM folks seemed earnest in their attempts to get music that people who read this site care about out to a much broader audience, so their exclusion of all things classical is somewhat baffling to me.

    As for the 1001 List, I was actually rather impressed with many of their choices, much of it far removed from top-40 or typical R&R Hall of Fame fare, which made their sins of omission all the more irritating. I cited Shivkumar Sharma in my original post above. How many of his records have you heard? I admit I like to think I’ve got a great record collection, but when I bought my copy of the LP of the very Shivkumarji album they put on the list in the back of an Indian grocery store 20 years ago, I thought I had found El Dorado. But I wasn’t alone. And neither is he: the 1001 List also included albums by Ravi Shankar, Thelonious Monk, Charles Mingus, Nina Simone, Milton Nascimento, Ali Farka Touré, and Baaba Maal, to name a few folks not frequently on the mainstream’s radar.

    ACD suggests that “[I]t’s time you and your new music brethren got it through your heads that by its very nature classical music, new and old, is and has always been an elite enterprise, but isn’t that also true for Indian classical music which did make the list, twice, a whole lot of jazz (also on the list), and much of alternative rock at this point. Some of the 1001 List’s rock selections are particularly erudite: John Cale’s early Paris 1919; Tago Mago by Can, a highly experimental rock group formed by former Stockhausen students. I concur with the list’s compilers that Black Monk Time, The Psychedelic Sounds of the 13th Floor Elevators, Skip Spence’s Oar, and the debut albums of both the Brazilian tripsters Os Mutantes and the German proggers Neu are all really worthwhile albums, but they sold fewer copies than many a classical album. So, as far as I can tell, the 1001 list is not market driven and it is not a popularity contest. And I would argue that albums by groups like King Crimson, Sonic Youth, Public Enemy, Wilco, Radiohead, or individuals like Beck, Brian Eno, Brian Wilson, or Björk (all of whom are generously represented on the 1001 list) are every bit as sophisticated as much so-called contemporary classical music; so that’s not it either.

    Scott Gendel pondered that classical might have been excluded since it is not an album-oriented genre. I’ll challenge that on two very different levels. First, there have been a number of significant classical “albums” that were created specifically for this medium and have had broad appeal beyond classical music: Morton Subotnick’s Silver Apples of the Moon immediately comes to mind. Commissioned and released in 1967 by Nonesuch Records as a work for the LP medium intended to be listened to in people’s homes specifically, it was very successful and even spawned the name of the rock band Silver Apples. Terry Riley’s equally broad reaching LP A Rainbow in Curved Air, marketed as a pop album, is where the band Curved Air got their name. Riley’s earlier In C, which granted is cooler as a live experience, was even doctored in the studio the first time it was recorded commercially, with wacky psychedelic effects added to the end of the first side and the beginning of the second side of the LP most likely intended to ease listeners in and out of the necessary break in repetition when flipping sides.

    Then there’s the immensely successful Switched on Bach, which mainstreamed the synthesizer before the Beatles did, and subsequent original compositions created specifically for the home listening environment by Wendy Carlos (e.g. Sonic Seasonings, a wonderful ambient album predating Eno’s admittedly also wonderful Music for Airports, which is on the list). Philip Glass’s early ’80s Glassworks was conceived as a record as was Songs for Liquid Days from later in that decade; both were sold on the first floor of Tower Records, back in the day (e.g. the pop/rock section). Glass has had such influence beyond classical music circles that he was invited to perform on NBC-TV’s Saturday Night Live (the clip has recently be floating around the web so it’s luckily more than a fond memory). Glass has even been spoofed on South Park. That’s more than I can say for Shuggie Otis, a great largely forgotten soul/funk wunderkind deservedly on their list, but you get my drift.

    Second, and more importantly, as music reaches so many more people through recordings (whether purchased discs, radio or web transmission) than live performances at this point, it’s a bit of a canard to think that any music is created exclusively for live performance in these early years of the 21st century. If anything, many new music pieces are performed live in preparation for recording sessions soon thereafter which will reach many more people that the few who were lucky enough to be there in person. I’ve heard so much more music through recordings than I’ll ever be able to hear live and I consider myself lucky. And this isn’t just limited to new music. Ask any classical music maven about the ’55 or ’81 Goldbergs, including ACD… Of course, Glenn Gould famously eschewed live performance. So does that mean what he did was no longer classical music? Talk to any opera buff about the ’52 Callas Covent Garden Norma (so successful as a bootleg all these years that EMI finally released it on CD a few years back), and chances are they’re talking about the recording (official or otherwise) and not the live experience. After all, that particular live performance happened more than a half century ago.

    Finally, the live vs. recording argument might work for the NARM list (they are record merchandisers afterall), but ultimately falls flat with the 1001 List because it includes many live recordings: Duke Ellington at Newport; Sam Cooke Live at the Harlem Square; James Brown Live at the Apollo, Vol. 1 (to my ears, Vol. 2 with the 20 minute workout on “It’s a Man, Man’s World” blows Vol. 1 and everything else the Godfather did out of the water, but alas I digress…); the Grateful Dead’s 1968 Live/Dead (Hey, I love Blues for Allah too, but we all know they were at their most inspired when live); Jerry Lee Lewis Live at the Star Club in Hamburg; even Nirvana’s MTV Unplugged in New York, etc.

    I still say the problem is that we’ve so hermetically sealed ourselves from the rest of music that we’re no longer even considered music by most people. This is a huge problem which is only compounded by the fact that if we opened up our own lists (Pulitzers et al) to these other things, they very well might take over those lists to the point of excluding the music originally on it from any attention whatsoever. So, as I asked at the onset, what to do?

  21. william

    Daniel, I didn’t notice your post before I made my last response. Actually, I agree with you for the most part. And where I might not agree, it is simply because the problems are so complex I don’t know what to think at all.

    It is true that the average members of the classical music public are not responsible for the use of orchestras as symbols of elite power and status. And American citizens are not given a choice in how the arts are funded. There is not one politician advocating public arts funding on a scale the Europeans have, so our monolithic commercial media, and the elite financial and political interests it serves, remain unchallenged. We thus end up with an elitist cultural plutocracy, because the arts are funded almost exclusively by the wealthy and corporations.

    The dynamics between cultural plutocracy and subversive art are extremely complex. Neither the European nor American system would tolerate any art whose subversion becomes too powerful. To speak very broadly, the difference is that in Europe challenges to the *hegemony* of popular culture are not seen as subversive, but in America they are. That’s probably because most popular mass culture is produced by American companies who make huge profits from their products. They do not want their market, and especially their marketing structures, challenged.

    And it is true that the legacies of feudalism and cultural nationalism that shape symphony orchestras are no longer consistent with contemporary social mores. Orchestras are anachronistic, but I feel change needs to come from well-funded artistic exploration, and a wide appreciation of artistic innovation created by better arts education. Emulations of popular cultural might help in part, but they are not the solution to the problem.

    William Osborne

  22. Daniel Wolf


    It ought to be added that the environment for classical and especially new music in Europe is in tremendous change at the moment. In Germany, which I know well, the four major channels for support of new music (the Radio Stations, GEMA, the German Music Council, and commercial publishers) have all radically reduced their new music activities. Let me just detail a bit about radio stations: Although Radio budgets have kept pace with inflation, pressure on those budget from other activities — in large part Soccer broadcast licenses, but also competition for broadcast time and budgets from news and spoken language broadcasting — have caused station directors to cut or eliminate ensembles, commissions, and festivals; recording activities have been radically curtailed in favor of generating income from the existing libraries of recordings (to be fair, much valuable historical material has never been broadcast or released), and staff positions for new music have been systematically reduced. The terrible irony here is, of course, that these reductions in cultural broadcasting are coming at a time of increasing presence by commercial broadcasters, which are the natural channel for sports and entertainment. Instead of recognizing the opportunity that the presences of the private broadcasters has made for expanding cultural coverage, the public stations have made a committment to compete with the privates, and ratings are everything. With new music broadcasts consistantly receiving the minimum recorded audience rating of 1% and stations unwilling to cut technical standards and production costs — a recording in a station still requires a minimum staff of three people in the studio — new music is increasingly seen as a loss-generating area. With the motive these days is to cut costs, loss-making areas are the first to go.

    I believe that these developments do have some potentially positive effects on a relatively moribund new music culture as well as the obvious practical problems, but that’s a long discussion of its own, and I wanted here to correct the possible misconception that Europe was some kind of paradise for new music funding.

  23. william

    Daniel, you are quite right about sharp reductions in funding for new music in Germany, but compared to the USA, it is still incomparably better, even if not a “paradise.”

    There are two larger factors in the developments you describe. The economic treaties that formulated the European Union were designed to conform with the “neo-liberal” economic models set forth by Milton Friedman and established in the USA during the Reagan administration. Neo-liberalism stresses free market economies and the reduction of government intervention. As a result, the social democracies of Europe have been put under enormous pressure. Until these models were set forth, for example, private broadcasters were not even allowed in most European countries. These private broadcasters have had a devastating effect on the media, especially in Italy, where former Prime Minister Berslusconi owns literally all of them. He was also responsible for Italy eliminating its radio orchestras — though all of the opera houses survived.

    Secondly, Germany unified, thus increasing its population and territory by about a third, and with people who had no economic infrastructure left at all. Trillions were required to rebuild East Germany. This put an incalculable strain on the economy.

    There are, however, signs for hope. Two years ago both the French and Dutch voted to reject the European constitution, in protest against the effect it was having on their social democracies. Without unanimous confirmation by all member countries, the constitution cannot be passed. The proposed constitution is thus currently being revised. And neo-liberalism is now under strong attack around the world. Perhaps the newly revised EU constitution will allow Europe to more easily maintain its social democracies.

    And secondly, the German economy is very clearly turning around after the stresses of unification. I strongly suspect the German government will use the prosperity to maintain their cultural programs. Even under the massive pressure of unification, for example, they only eliminated nine of their 144 State supported orchestras – and about half of those eliminated were indeed clear redundancies created by unification.

    So there might be cause for hope. On the other hand, we can’t forget that our (presumed) democracies are strongly manipulated by financial elites. It is quite possible the new constitution will not be any better – just more cleverly disguised.

    William Osborne

  24. A.C. Douglas

    Frank J. Oteri (who has an elite taste in coffees) wrote: ACD suggests that “[I]t’s time you and your new music brethren got it through your heads that by its very nature classical music, new and old, is and has always been an elite enterprise”[.] [B]ut isn’t that also true for Indian classical music which did make the list, twice, a whole lot of jazz (also on the list), and much of alternative rock at this point. […] And I would argue that albums by groups like King Crimson, Sonic Youth, Public Enemy, Wilco, Radiohead, or individuals like Beck, Brian Eno, Brian Wilson, or Björk (all of whom are generously represented on the 1001 list) are every bit as sophisticated as much so-called contemporary classical music; so that’s not it either.

    From my limited knowledge, I suspect it’s true that the musics you above mention may also be regarded as constituting an elite enterprise. But it’s a very different sort of elite enterprise from the elite enterprise to which classical music belongs as those musics you mention (Indian classical music excepted, and a special case) essentially derive from, and are based and depend on, everyday-familiar contemporary vernacular forms and modes of expression, even in those occasional instances when they employ references to or even direct quotes from old classical music. Classical music, new and old, on the other hand, does not derive from, nor is it based and dependent on, everyday-familiar contemporary vernacular forms and modes of expression, but on forms and modes of expression worlds apart, and therefore requires a very different and special sort of musical sensibility and mindset to comprehend.

    I would therefore argue that the two elite enterprises are neither equatable nor directly comparable, and argue as well that while the musics that constitute the former elite enterprise may reasonably be expected to show up on Best Of lists produced for the masses, to expect the same for the music that constitutes the latter is something less than reasonable.


  25. A.C. Douglas



    “…even in those occasional instances when they employ references to or even direct quotes from old classical music.”

    should have read:

    “…even in those occasional instances when they employ references to or even direct quotes from classical music new and old.”


  26. A.C. Douglas

    Another Oops


    “…but on forms and modes of expression worlds apart, and therefore requires a very different and special sort of musical sensibility and mindset to comprehend.”

    should have read:

    “…but on forms and modes of expression worlds apart, and therefore requires a very different and special sort of musical sensibility and mindset to comprehend and appreciate.”


  27. william

    Those who might be interested in a sample of the new music broadcasts presented by Germany’s state radio network can look here to find the WDR’s program which is based in Cologne:


    If you select a month in the drop down menu, the entire month’s program will be displayed. (April isn’t posted yet.) Clicking on a weekly program will show the pieces performed. The archive of program listings goes back to May 2003.

    The WDR (West Deutscher Rundfunk) is one of about 12 or 15 state radios in Germany (I forget the exact number. Examples of others are the Bayerischer Rundfunk, Hessische Runkfunk, Radio Bremen, Sudwest Funk, Freies Sender Berlin, etc.) Almost all of them broadcast regular new music programs. And most importantly, these state radios perform and record most the works themselves for broadcast.

    When you add up all the various stations, they record and broadcast several hours of new music each week, month after month. Large orchestral works are regularly included, because this is part of the job of the radio orchestras.

    There is nothing comparable to this in the USA, which is an enormous loss for American music.

    And to relate this to the blog topic, it might explain why Europeans haven’t taken up the notion that popular culture should be emulated in classical new music. They have more alternatives and do not need to rely on commercial media the way Americans do. As Daniel mentioned, criticisms can be made of the German system, but they seem trivial compared with the problems American composers face.

    William Osborne

  28. cbustard

    The best way to get classical music, contemporary or otherwise, onto a must-hear list is to compile recordings your sound system must play before it dies.

    One of the rarely mentioned facts about pop recordings is that most are analog, and continued to be long after the digital revolution. Why? Because pop and rock — and electronically generated or amplified music in general — have minimal dynamic range and no spatial perspective or room acoustic; so digital recording offers no real improvement in sound.

    About the only advantage of playing pop on a high-dollar sound system is boomier bass sound.

    You can be sure that people selling high-end sound equipment keep a stash of Absolute Sound-endorsed classical recordings to dazzle potential buyers. ELP’s “Pictures at an Exhibition” and the collected works of Van Halen wouldn’t make the sale.


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