Letter to the Editor: Why Was There No NewMusicBox Obit of Ligeti?

Letter to the Editor: Why Was There No NewMusicBox Obit of Ligeti?

I write this letter with what I am sad to say is a final frustration with your website. Recommended to me last fall when I was looking for a source for contemporary music news, I have since found New Music Box to be a somewhat stodgy, banal article repository with its only values found in the “what’s happening” write-ups about cities in the USA. On June 12, however, I had nowhere else to turn when a friend called to deliver the shocking and saddening news that Gyorgy Ligeti, perhaps the world’s most far-reaching, influential and greatest living composer, had died at age 83 in Vienna. My first reaction was to check New Music Box, and I found not a whisper.

I googled Ligeti’s name and found news articles and write-ups on his death from every major newspaper around the world. Today I returned to New Music Box to see what sort of obituary you had provided, three days later. Still nothing.

I realize that the site is run by the American Music Center, but if New Music Box considers itself to have any artistic or cultural responsibility to its readers, the lack of coverage of Ligeti’s death is nothing but the utmost ethno-centrism. No American composer in history has come close to accomplishing what Ligeti did, the closest being the movement championed by Steve Reich in California in the sixties and seventies, a movement that Ligeti not only witnessed living in San Francisco, but also adapted into his own compositions, being very interested in the techniques of Reich, Glass and their followers in conjunction with music of Southeast Asia and of the Banda Linda tribe in the Central African Republic.

I am interested to see what possible justification NMB can have for its failure on this issue. That Ligeti was not an American is immaterial; any American composer that does not in some way acknowledge his music is, simply put, not worth his or her salt. Any American composer that did not think about music in a new way after first encountering Ligeti’s music is either lying or poorly researched. If you move beyond composers to what (I assume, perhaps wrongly) is a target audience of casual music-listeners, you will find the majority of them giving Ligeti his due, having experienced his music in the movies of Stanley Kubrick, or perhaps having attended a performance of Atmospheres, perhaps the most important orchestral piece of the latter half of the twentieth century.

The only remaining excuse NMB can provide was ignorance to the event. If this is the case, then this website should seriously reconsider where and how it gets its news, and what possible role it can be playing in the arts community to miss something like this. No matter how NMB tries to justify this vast oversight, it has already led me to doubt that it has a role in the arts community, and certainly in my search for arts education, at all.


FJO responds:

The death of György Ligeti is indeed the major music news story on the web this week. I am personally a huge fan of this enormously important and influential European composer, and he well deserves the numerous obituaries and testimonials that are now all over the internet. His death even made it to the pages of CNN.

Since the news of Ligeti’s death has appeared on free sites all over the web—I even posted the first of many threads about it to the contemporary classical music site Sequenza21 as soon as I learned of it from Musical America which is a subscription service—I question why you are so vexed that we did not duplicate this readily available coverage in NewMusicBox and deem our not having done so “a failure.” As the web magazine from the American Music Center, the mandate of NewMusicBox is to cover the work of American composers. This is no more a “vast oversight” than a bluegrass or hip-hop magazine not running an obituary of Ligeti because he was not a bluegrass or hip-hop artist.

Admittedly, Ligeti’s impact has been profound upon the entire compositional world. Ligeti’s death has been on all of our minds, and it has already been referenced in passing in a posting by Colin Holter that appeared on NewMusicBox yesterday. In fact, we are well aware that Ligeti was an important teacher to a wide range of American composers from Martin Bresnick to Roberto Sierra. And an article about Ligeti’s impact on American composers, which I have yet to see in any publication I have read thus far, would be appropriate for NewMusicBox and is something our editorial staff has discussed as a possibility at some point in the future. If anyone would like to publish a personal anecdote about Ligeti’s impact on their own music, we would welcome that in the comments area of this page.

We do feel a great deal of artistic and cultural responsibility to our readers. Therefore I must counter your assertions that “no American composer in history has come close to accomplishing what Ligeti did” and that “any American composer that does not in some way acknowledge his music is, simply put, not worth his or her salt.” No non-American composer in history has come close to accomplishing what Charles Ives, Elliott Carter, John Cage, Duke Ellington, Ornette Coleman, Thelonious Monk, or Meredith Monk, to name only a few, have done. But of course the same could be said about composers from all over the world and should be. This is not xenophobia. With all due respect to Ligeti, singling him out the way you have done as part of a “great man theory” after his death only perpetuates the myth that classical music is the domain of a few great European men who are no longer alive. Ideally, no composer should accomplish what any other composer has done. We are all unique.

I’m sorry that you find NewMusicBox to be “a somewhat stodgy, banal article repository,” but no one can account for personal taste.

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.

17 thoughts on “Letter to the Editor: Why Was There No NewMusicBox Obit of Ligeti?

  1. JohnClare

    I have to agree with Frank. There have been many links/tributes already made…I debated about whether to blog about it myself – and am still thinking about the effect it has on me. After that happens, perhaps I will.
    It’s unfair to draw such conclusions – New Music Box and the AMC do a great job, both day to day and in the larger picture.
    Don’t get me wrong, losing such a musical mind is a loss, it always is when a composer passes…I’ve always thought it a bit morbid to “celebrate” the anniversary of a composer’s death; which taken as an outsider’s view, might seem very strange – of course, it’s not celebrating the death (unless you’re Peter Schickele spoofing PDQ Bach, who’s death has been celebrated [PDQ Bach’s]) but in reality celebrating the genius of a composer and his works. But we take any excuse, a birthday, deathday, premiere date to talk or perform a particular work or composer.
    Of course, the business and views of “classical” music is changing, and even an anniversary might not be enough to market a concert (although 2006 has certainly been marked for Mozart) – let’s hope there’s more with Shostakovich coming up (oh no! a non American composer – JUST KIDDING!)
    My two cents.

  2. Garth Trinkl

    No non-American composer in history has come close to accomplishing what Charles Ives, Elliott Carter, John Cage, Duke Ellington, Ornette Coleman, Thelonious Monk, or Meredith Monk, to name only a few, have done….

    We are all unique

    Well, the current New Music Box editorial staff is free to think that aesthetic distinctions cannot be made in classical music, but most musicians, thinkers, and humans throughout the world will indeed judge that the non-Americans Bach, Mozart, and Beethoven accomplished more musically than did Ives, Cage, or Carter (to date); and that Josquin Des Prez accomplished more musically than has Meredith Monk (to date).

    Now I remember why I don’t often read the gossip pages of New Music Box any more.

    I also wonder whether the Board of the AMC has ever considered keeping the Cover, Matter, and Radar Web-pages of NewMusicBox and jettisoning the Chatter pages?

    Renaissance Research

  3. Colin Holter

    I second Frank’s opinions wholeheartedly. This is the internet: If you want news, there are plenty of places to get it. This site, on the other hand, is The Web Magazine from the American Music Center, as its masthead clearly indicates. NewMusicBox should not be held responsible for eulogizing a non-American composer, no matter how important. Your claim that Ligeti’s contribution to music is unrivaled by Americans – and your bewildering attribution of runner-up status to Reich and Glass – is far more offensive than the absence of a Ligeti obituary on NewMusicBox.

    I would also note that an accusation of “the utmost ethno-centrism” should not be leveled lightly.

  4. pgblu

    Nobody made claims that Ives etc accomplished ‘more’ than Bach etc, but that they accomplished things no one else accomplished. We celebrate their uniqueness, not the sheer amount of their impact.

    Read things carefully before you turn these pages into a repository for your self-righteous ire.

    I personally like New Music Box, and don’t look here for updates on Emeril’s touring schedule either, though he’s had more of an impact on our culture than Josquin des Prez.

  5. Garth Trinkl

    Seth, I stand by my comment.

    And I will suggest that it is you who should learn to read.

    Also, I suggest that you are confusing the “our culture” to which you refer with your own private music world.

    Define “our”?

  6. CM Zimmermann

    Frank Oteri’s response to this complaint letter indeed makes it clear that New Music Box is devoted only to American music and thus should not be held responsible for not publishing anything on the death of Ligeti Gyorgy. On the other hand, a closer look at New Music Box’s mission statement as well as some familiarity with the nature of this website do not preclude a reaction of surprise and perhaps suspicion that nothing was mentioned.

    Here is New Music Box’s mission (the ‘bold’ is mine):

    ‘NewMusicBox is a Web-based advocacy magazine and portal dedicated to the music of American composers and improvisers and their champions. A multi-media publication from the American Music Center, NewMusicBox offers: in-depth articles and discussions; up-to-the-minute industry news and commentary; coverage of upcoming performances, new books and recordings; plus on-demand concert webcasts.

    Embracing the broadest possible range of viewpoints, NewMusicBox invigorates and gives voice to a global online community dedicated to this ever-evolving music while bringing it to the attention of the world at large. Building on the energy derived from the music itself, NewMusicBox is a vital hub for information that cannot be found elsewhere.’


  7. CM Zimmermann

    One last brief observation concerning the New Music Box mission:

    the first sentence reads: ‘NewMusicBox is a Web-based advocacy magazine and portal dedicated to the music of American composers and improvisers and their champions.’

    Dedicated to ‘American composers and improvisers and their champions’. This may be somewhat of a minor detail that goes beyond the spirit of New Music Box’s purpose (then again FJO does sight NMB’s mission in response to the letter), but Ligeti was certainly a champion of American music and composers. He taught in California, was involved in ‘minimalism’ to a certain extent, and was heavily influenced by jazz (specifically Bill Evans and Thelonious Monk) and Conlon Nancarrow.

  8. david toub

    Yes, Ligeti is significant. But to be honest, I could say the same for any of a number of composers. I like a lot of Ligeti’s music, and have known of his stuff since I was a kid (and not just the 2001 stuff, mind you). Yet, he never made me trip quite as much as the best of Glass, Reich, Riley and several other composers from the US, all of whom, in my opinion, are at least as significant to musical history as the late Gyorgi Ligeti.

    So the omission here is not inappropriate. Granted, I doubt anyone would have been upset had there been something. But at this point, there’s been tons of stuff written about the man and his music all over the place, including Reply

  • david toub

    not sure why my message was truncated—it wasn’t that long, and it seems this site isn’t taking to embedded links, but whatever…

    But at this point, there’s been tons of stuff written about the man and his music all over the place, including my own blog (http://homepage.mac.com/dtoub/blog/C1162157567/E20060612105212/index.html), which was posted as soon as I heard the news. So I absolutely agree with Frank Oteri, as well as those who do not take kindly to the omission of many significant and ground-breaking US composers.

  • Christopher John Smith

    I have to largely agree with Mr. Power. If he had written, “no American composer recent history”, as he may have intended (I doubt he is ignorant of Ives, Cage, or Partch) he would have been exactly right. His statement that “any American composer that does not in some way acknowledge his music is, simply put, not worth his or her salt” is unfortunately quite pertinent. Since the advent of the “new Romanticism” it seems to have become routine, at least in the mainstream, to dismiss any kind of complex, modernist, or experimental work as somehow “old hat” and deserving of contempt. With all due respect to Mr. Oteri, and to Ellington, Coleman, and others whose work I admire for their own achievements, the equation of people who do/did not produce formal, notated, reproducible work with a comprehensive and rigorous theoretical basis with those who do to be dubious and somewhat insidious; nor, as a composer who formally studied composition, who composes music, and whose life is devoted to the great legacy and continuing achievement of composed music, will I apologise for this position. To be more blunt, I frankly find it lame to trot out Ellington and Meredith Monk, and to condescendingly pooh-pooh “the great man theory of history” (I have yet to discover who else makes history) while essentially offering a more trendy, crowd-pleasing, P.C. version of it.
    On the subject of standards, I recently attended a concert presented by a school with a leading composition department, at which the quality of new work presented would have been laughable and embarrasing when I attended school 25 years ago. The level of musical culture in the United States, compared to Europe, has become pitiful; and I request anyone challenging this statement to name five prominent living American composers as challenging, rigorous, and original as Ferneyhough, Radulescu, Lachenmann, Finnissy or Dillon, or a number of others I could name. I would, in fact, not be at all surprised if many American composers do dismiss Ligeti, which is of course disgraceful.
    With specific reference to NMB, I must admit that I do find myself reading it less and less. A year or more ago, in-depth articles on technical subjects and progressive or experimental work were not infrequent; they seem to have dwindled to almost nil, while career-oriented articles aimed at people doing commission-friendly work seem to have become the norm.

  • Colin Holter

    Interesting that you mention Ferneyhough and Dillon and not Elliott Carter, an American composer who is still alive and composing. If we absolutely must quantify musical achievement, I think it’s hard to argue that Carter isn’t at least as great a composer as Ligeti. In my opinion, he’s probably a little better. . . IF we must quantify musical accomplishment, which I think is probably a kindergartener’s critical model.

    All music is not equally valuable, but if we’re talking about a composer’s importance to posterity, we might as well be trading their baseball cards. The qualities that invest music with worth are exceedingly complex, requiring perhaps a more advanced mathematical analog than the reductive x > y comparison to which we instinctively turn.

    Not everyone here privileges other composers above Ligeti because his music is “too complex” (in fact, I’m not sure anyone here does): For some of us, it’s on the simpler side of our new music tastes.

  • pgblu

    A lot of vitriol has been spilled here, and I am just as guilty as anyone of spilling it. Anyhow, I am not sure where the argument about New Music Box’s mission statement ends and the debate about the importance of Ligeti begins, so I’ll leave that problem to the individuals to parse. The omission of a Ligeti obit doesn’t bother me. Just a few more observations about recent posts and then I’ll call it a day..

    First of all, I have been in compositional circles on both sides of the Atlantic, and must say that Mr. Smith’s comments do demand some response. There are some very interesting, challenging composers living and working in the United States, but their work is simply not promoted as strongly here on the home front. They get careers by going to Europe (if they are lucky). Alternatively. they have a few students, they find modest jobs, and they muddle their way through in our multi-tiered university system. Just because they lack the notoriety of Dillon, Lachenmann, Ferneyhough, does not mean that they don’t exist. (You don’t expressly say they don’t, but you do imply that.)

    I think your phrase ‘at least in the mainstream’ is a crucial one. You are only talking about the mainstream. However, in the US, it is possible to thrive on being an outsider. I’d say that is much easier to do in the US than in Europe. To be sure, in Europe there is a better infrastructure to sustain the so-called avant-garde or the in-crowd, but if the movers-and-shakers, the kingmakers of that infrastructure don’t like you, then there isn’t anyplace for you to go. The United States has a larger plurality of schools of thought, but less overall money for the arts. And that is a key difference.

    A lot of us living in the US feel that we are getting the ‘New Romanticism’, which you lament, shoved into every one of our orifices. Your implication that all of us happily pile into the gondola of anti-modernism is just rubbing our face in it and quite unfair.

    The other observation that I want to make from the transatlantic perspective is that Ligeti is much more consistently lionized in the States than in Europe. In fact, the praise for Ligeti that I have heard from colleagues here is higher than praise I have heard for any other composer ever. That praise almost never is without groans of ecstasy about one or the other of his works. European composers have, shall we say, a more nuanced spectrum of views on his music. I am sure he has detractors in America (besides the stalwart anti-modernists), but I haven’t met them yet.

    Finally a tiny bit of nastiness. You don’t know the music of Coleman or Ellington. That is clear. They certainly don’t deserve your contempt implied by the phrase ‘trotted out’. They are not show-horses. And your delight in trotting out long sentences seems to have trumped your obligation to write grammatically correct ones.

    PS The comment about Emeril was facetious as well. Josquin is cool, and means more to me than Emeril. I agree that the phrase ‘our culture’ was a problematic one. My implication was that NMB cannot be everything for everyone, but only nothing to some, something to most, and everything to a select few.

  • pgblu

    And I did intentionally write Emeril and not Eminem. Emeril is not a part of the music world, private or otherwise; but you shouldn’t feel bad for not knowing that. Emeril has a cooking show and a delightful line of food products. I recommend his chicken stock in a box.

  • CM Zimmermann

    Ideology masked as taste or taste masked as ideology.

    The way in which we choose to tell and frame history reveals quite a bit about our ideological stances. The ‘great man theory’ is no longer tenable in today’s pluralistic artistic environment(s). You wrote:

    ‘I frankly find it lame to trot out Ellington and Meredith Monk, and to condescendingly pooh-pooh “the great man theory of history” (I have yet to discover who else makes history) while essentially offering a more trendy, crowd-pleasing, P.C. version of it.’

    History is typically told from a position of power: the victors, in other words. Your ‘great man’ theory is undoubtedly filled with white, European testosteron responsible for bringing about massive historical shifts (or perhaps, thrusts). The problem here is that ‘the great man’ theory silences a tapestry of untold histories and severs music, in this case, from the cultural, political, aesthetic contexts in which it is embedded. We can praise Martin Luther King Jr. for his ‘greatness’ and central role in the Civil rights Movement, yet we cannot allow ourselves to do this without recognizing that there was a massive, highly-organized grass roots movement(s) that made Dr. King possible as a public figure. To use Kuhnian terms, much ‘normal’ science must be done in preparation for a paradigm shift brought about by a complex of forces. In music, for every ‘great’ composer or performer, there are all kinds of communities of musicians, many of which are entirely marginalized by the dominant culture, which, I might add, has married ‘the great man theory’ to somewhat of a fetishistic relationship to the image, shaping and contributing to the multifarious ways to hear our world. Bartok did not descend from the sky. He was part of an extremely vibrant turn of the century artistic and political culture in Budapest. We rarely recognize this when it comes to Bartok.

    In answer to your question about who makes history?, we do. People do. Many of whom are simply ‘unknown’, yet integral, forces within a much larger interrelated creative environment.

  • davidlag

    Dear John Christopher Smith

    I wanted to take a brief moment to respond to one aspect of your statement: “I request anyone challenging this statement to name five prominent living American composers as challenging, rigorous, and original as Ferneyhough, Radulescu, Lachenmann, Finnissy or Dillon, or a number of others I could name.”

    As a composer and concert presenter I am always on the look out for original cutting edge composers (perhaps not the most well known) of my generation. The list below represents five impressive Americans (under 35) working in a highly original “post – new complexity” style some what similiar to the Europeans that you cited. It was actually harder to limit myself to five. They will all cite Ligeti as an influence too. My list:

    Jason Eckhardt,
    Christopher Burns,
    Kyle Bartlett,
    Michael Klingbeil and
    Sidney Bouqurien.

  • randy

    Five under 35?
    I haven’t heard Sidney Boquiren’s music since the Gaudeamus festival, way back in 2000, so unless he’s exploring radically different territory (entirely possible) I wouldn’t exactly say that he is writing music as “rigorous” as “Ferneyhough, Radulescu, Lachenmann,” etc. In fact, apropos to this topic thread, I think his music is more reminiscent of Legiti. He’s a great guy and I wouldn’t want to knock him off your list, but I’m afraid he already past that 35-year milestone. I wholeheartedly support the rest of your choices. Kyle Bartlett! She’s America’s little-Lachenmann! And hey, what about Aaron Cassidy?

  • Christopher John Smith

    Thanks to everyone for their thoughtful replies. I was admittedly being a bit polemic, and I acknowledge my respondants’ valid points.

    To pgblu and Randy – I’m glad to hear there are interesting people working under the radar; but as pgblu pointed out, I was talking about the mainstream. I think my point stands that serious modernism has become a sort of object of ridicule in a critical mainstream which increasingly adopts a middle-brow mentality, in a way disconcertingly similar to the way liberalism and progressivism are ridiculed in the public sphere, and which also seems to depressingly fulfill Adorno’s predictions.

    And, yes, I do know and appreciate a little Ellington and Coleman, rather more Coltrane and Sun Ra. Nothing precludes, however, that they can still be subject to a facile appropriation as I describe. Also, even Ellington’s most ardent admirers admit that his work is irreproducible, while Coleman is notorious for the obscurity of his theory, however interesting his work. To me these things constitute a limit to their achievement; to you they may not, and I won’t argue that.

    To CM Zimmermann – Your viewpoint is of course entirely valid, in fact one I share more than I let on – people can hold conflicting viewpoints and argue one and then the other, and I plead guilty. My perspective on the “great man” theory is that, to use your example, ultimately it was Bartok who was Bartok, wrote Bartok’s music, etc.; whereas current scholarship seems, to me, to often tend too far in the opposite direction and eliminate, or at least ignore, the great man altogether; or, as I stated, to offer an “alternative” rehash of it. I have seen a history of early 20th-century British music in which arguably the three most interesting composers of the period – Brian, Foulds, and Sorabji – are dismissed in the space of one page as not being “socially relevant”; I might also note criticisms of Taruskin’s new Oxford History of Music (cf. Musical Times no. 1893) for being permeated by a “social utility” philosophy (dogma?) and belittling or criticising almost every highly original composer in history (no mean feat! – and the privilege of reading which will set you back $700, so much for anti-elitism).

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