The Aesthetics of Survival

The Aesthetics of Survival

Although George Rochberg’s collected essays—The Aesthetics of Survival—was published with very little fanfare by the University of Michigan Press in January 2005, an anonymously-posted blistering online review of the book (filled with factual misinformation and personal attacks) appeared on Amazon only days later. When I chanced upon shortly after his death in May of that year, it struck me as one of the most mean spirited things I had ever read. And, although I have serious qualms with censorship, I sent a letter to Amazon asking that they remove it. I even ranted about it on these pages.

Of course, Amazon never took down the comment, but last October a second poster who offered his name declared the book a masterpiece and implied that anyone who didn’t think so can’t use their ears properly. Both comments remain on the site to this day.

I’ve finally read this extremely articulate book and can definitely see why some might be getting bent out of shape. Rochberg makes a persuasive case for his apostasy from musical modernism, decrying the arcane structures of integral serialism claiming they ultimately lead to music which is perceptually indeterminate. In a strangely prophetic essay titled “Indeterminacy and the New Music” written in 1959 (several years before he actually stopped composing twelve-tone music), Rochberg questioned the serialization of dynamics, insisting that the word “dynamics” mandates an emanation from expression rather than an order in a scale of measurements. In “No Center” from 1969, he constructs a manifesto based on intuition:

The liberation of the imagination from dogma implies the freedom to move where the ear takes us and to bring together everything which seems good to it. We are not Slaves of History. We can choose and create our own time.

In 2006, Rochberg’s manifesto looks remarkably similar to the contemporary music landscape of today. And yet Rochberg is rarely cited as one of its models. His music has been sadly absent from major concert venues in the year since his death.

The Rochberg collection was published roughly around the same time as the collected essays of two other composers, both of whose writings are arguably as polemical and timely as his: Milton Babbitt and Steve Reich. Luckily both of them are still very much with us, and their music continues to receive frequent performances. But neither book has inspired a single online reviewer on Amazon thus far to pontificate one way or the other. Could it be that Rochberg’s theses are ultimately more controversial than those in Babbitt’s “The Composer as Specialist” (the essay universally known by its first editor’s interloping title “Who Cares if You Listen?“)? Or Reich’s “Music as a Gradual Process” which equally skewers Cage, serialism, and “drug oriented rock”? Or do all of Babbitt and Reich’s detractors shop in bookstores rather than on Amazon?

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6 thoughts on “The Aesthetics of Survival

  1. ichypatia

    In terms of performance, few American composers can claim their music has generated the volume of continuous global interest (spanning 50+ years) that Rochberg’s has. One example – the Saarbrucken Radio Symphony Orchestra is currently in the process of recording George’s complete symphonic output- not a small task.

  2. sgordon

    “one of the most mean spirited things I had ever read” – ? Really? I just read it and… man, if that’s one of the most mean spirited things… have you ever read, like, an Ann Coulter column? Or – forget anything that extreme, even – a negative film review by Roger Ebert? A bad CD review in VICE magazine? Or anything I’ve said about Milton Babbitt? I mean, sure, whoever wrote it bared their teeth, but I find it hard to believe that anyone who doesn’t live in a land of taffeta-wrapped marshmallow cloud dream pillows would find that so abrasive as to be write-to-the-webmaster-and-ask-for-it’s-removal worthy.

    Maybe I’m just jaded, but that “mean spirited” review struck me as… rather generic. Nothing I hadn’t read in the old NMB forums by serialist proselytizers a million times before.

    I must admit I had no idea that Reich’s Music as a Gradual Process was in any way controversial. I just re-read it now, and for the life of me I can’t see where he knocks anyone. As far as I can tell, he just kind of explains why he likes what he likes, and that’s about it. Am I missing something? Maybe I have the edited version, with all the skewering taken out. He doesn’t say that Cage is bad – just that Cage isn’t the kind of “process music” he’s looking for / to write. Nowhere in it does he make a value judgement on any of the musics he refers to. He doesn’t dis “drug oriented rock” any more than he disses Indian classical music – if it’s supposed to be some line-in-the-sand polemic, it’s certainly the most mild-mannered one I’ve ever read.

    The Composer as Specialist, on the other hand… that one’s mean spirited. I don’t shop at Amazon, no, but I’ll be happy to add my review of MB’s Collected Essays to their page…

  3. harold.meltzer

    Hi Frank,
    You might be interested in a highly literate set of barbs, beginning with Jonathan Kramer’s “Can Modernism Survive George Rochberg?” Critical Inquiry XI/2 (1984). It’s a response to Rochberg’s “Can the Arts Survive Modernism?”, which encapsulates many of his arguments in his book. This led to a number of letters between the two, two of them titled “Kramer v. Kramer” and “Between a Rochberg and a Hard Place.”

  4. william

    Thank you for this comment, Frank. This passage is especially interesting:

    “In 2006, Rochberg’s manifesto looks remarkably similar to the contemporary music landscape of today. And yet Rochberg is rarely cited as one of its models. His music has been sadly absent from major concert venues in the year since his death.”

    I also find this strange, since he taught many of the most successful neo-romantics (or however they might be labeled) currently working – perhaps more than any other composer. I can’t list all of them, but they range from composers such as Christopher Rouse to Jennifer Higdon.

    During the 70s and most of the 80s, no other school except Penn had a curriculum that was so specifically designed to train composers in neo-romantic styles. His faculty colleagues, George Crumb and Richard Wernick, wrote fairly different kinds of music, but they still strongly endorsed his musical philosophies and pedagogical methods.

    In contrast to the neo-romantics that came later, Rochberg was not as concerned with reaching out to the public. He rejected serialism, but still advocated a highly elite, complex musical language. His models were the kinds of highly dense, massively structured chromatic tonalities that might be characterized by the late Beethoven Quartets, or Schönberg before he turned to serialism. The faculty at Penn seemed to disdain composers like Shostakovich and Britten, who wrote a seemingly simpler kind of tonality. And it seems rather certain that Rochberg’s tonality is far less approachable than the types presented by composers such as Corigliano or Kernis, both of who arrived on the scene several years later.

    So even though it is tonal, Rochberg’s music is not easy listening. This might be why he is not acknowledged as the originator the current form of American neo-romanticism, even he though he did far more than anyone else to shape neo-romanticism as a teacher, essayist, theorist, and composer. Sooner or later, people will figure this out.

    As the neo-romantic movement matures, it might well move even more toward Rochberg’s ideas of a more sophisticated tonality.

    William Osborne

  5. ichypatia

    …he taught many of the most successful neo-romantics (or however they might be labeled) currently working – perhaps more than any other composer. I can’t list all of them, but they range from composers such as Christopher Rouse to Jennifer Higdon.

    If you are suggesting that Rochberg is somehow responsible for producing a string of “neo-romantic” pupils – try again. Rochberg had a handfull of meetings with Rouse at Penn and promptly removed him from the degree program. They’ve hardly spoken since that time. (It was Crumb who allowed Rouse to stay and complete his education.) And while they may have met once or twice, George never knew Higdon on a personal level.

  6. william

    Yes, you are right that Rouse and Higdon are not good examples since they were not long-term students of Rochberg, though he did teach many students in tonal styles and many continued using those elements in their music. This was long before any other school had such a clearly focused return to tonality.

    Wernick and Crumb, both influenced by Rochberg, taught along the same lines. So composers like Higdon, Rouse, and many others who went to Penn, and who were taught by Rochberg, Wernick and Crumb, were influenced by those ideas. Another example of a student is Stephan Hartke — who I believe studied mostly with Wernick, though I am not sure. Stephen Jaffe, a compostion professor at Duke, is another example.

    The generation of professors who followed them at Penn also continued those practices. Jay Reese, for example, was a student of Rochberg. So even if my examples in my hasty post are weak, I think the general idea that Rochberg is overlooked as an initiator of the neo-Romantic movement stands.

    Sorry for the very delayed repsonse. I have been traveling and just got back to read this.

    William Osborne


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