The Composer and the Social Contract

The Composer and the Social Contract

I’m still adjusting to being back in New York City after spending the past 11 days in the United Kingdom—London, Bath, and Cardiff, Wales, for the 2008 Conference of the International Association of Music Information Centres. It’s not just jetlag, overall vegetable deprivation, and navigating through traffic involving cars whose drivers are on the opposite side of what I’d normally expect, but what seems to me to be a completely different worldview about what the purpose of culture (e.g. music, theatre, etc.) is in a society and how it relates to people’s lives.

I’m not about to engage in a polemic about how things over there are much better than they are here, because in the final analysis, I’m not sure they are. (But, bear in mind, I also have issues with the subjective evaluation a word like “better” implies.) However, it seems to me, admittedly as an outsider, that music and other cultural byproducts are much more closely related to a sense of nationalism overseas than they ever can be in a nation such as ours.

Equating culture with national pride makes the very notion of an avant-garde seem somewhat quaint, if not downright anti-social. It is difficult to assert national identity in creative work that endeavors to be iconoclastic. Of course, there is a grand tradition of British avant-garde music spanning folks like Cyril Scott and John Foulds in the early 20th century through to Cornelius Cardew and Derek Bailey in the recent past and many people today. But England has a long established canonic tradition of internationally-acknowledged great works (from Dunstable to Purcell to Elgar, Vaughan Williams, and Benjamin Britten) which makes rebelling against it seem necessary in order to make work that isn’t merely a recasting of what has come before.

But Wales presents a somewhat different history. While there are Welsh composers who are extremely worthy of greater geographic recognition—Alun Hoddinott and William Mathias immediately spring to mind, and after learning more about their achievements last week I’d add Grace Williams and Mervyn Burtch to the pantheon as well—no Welsh composer is a worldwide household name. As a bonafide nation in virtually everything but sovereignty, Wales presents an interesting conundrum for the would-be experimental composer. When it’s so important to make a case for a national mainstream that is not as recognized as it should be elsewhere, what purpose would defying such a mainstream serve?

Indeed, a comment that emerged in conversations with the folks who work at the Welsh Music Information Centre seems particularly resonant: “There is a great difference between arts that spring from the community and arts that are imposed on the community.” In some ways, isn’t any work created by an individual following his or her own muse irregardless of larger societal concerns somehow an imposition on everyone else?

How does the work of an individual relate to a society such as ours? The United States often seems so disparate and un-unified, even moreso when returning to it after being away for a week and a half. At the final dinner of the conference, the birthday of one of the attendees was acknowledged and, as is always the case, the song “Happy Birthday” was sung. At that moment I couldn’t help but think that that ubiquitous song, composed in 1893 by Patty and Mildred J. Hill, might be the single most valuable contribution ever made to music by an American composer. That said, I’m still most excited about things that challenge accepted paradigms.

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20 thoughts on “The Composer and the Social Contract

  1. William Osborne

    It is difficult to assert national identity in creative work that endeavors to be iconoclastic.

    Ives seems to me like one of the most American composers and yet also one of the most iconoclastic. Who could have been more American than an avant-guardist like John Cage? Peter Maxwell Davies was quite avant-guarde and yet seems to me very British (e.g. Eight Songs for a Mad King.)

    Your comment seems to suggest (even if indirectly) that elements of avant-guardism, like protest or experimentation, are “anti-social.” Or am I misreading? Aren’t there times when iconoclasticism and protest are very important and civic-minded?

    The United States often seems so disparate and un-unified, even moreso when returning to it after being away for a week and a half.

    Does this realization signal a NMBx that will be more regionally diversified and less New York-centric? Will we be seeing more articles from and about the heartlands to represent the “disparate and un-unified” nature of our country? In this sense, see Kyle Gann’s article about Kansas City here:

    Is there tone of condescencion in Kyle’s article, sort of like saying, “Gee, I never realized those yokels had so much culture.” (Even if that is true, I really appreciate his article.) Is there far more cultural sophistication in the “hinterlands” than we might realize?

    I’m not about to engage in a polemic about how things over there are much better than they are here, because in the final analysis, I’m not sure they are.

    For better or worse (such complicated terms….,) London has five fulltime, year-round orchestras while NYC has only one. One of them, the London BBC Orchestra, has a special mandate to perform new music. London has two opera houses that run year-round while NYC does not have any. (Even the Met only has a seven month season.) And we won’t even start with the price comparisons for tickets, or the per capita sums of public funding. (Would only poor people find those lower prices “better?”) We also won’t mention how public funding allows for a more regionally diversified culture that varies from the American plutocratic system that neglects cities that are not financial centers.

    Without comparing ourselves to other cultures, or even other regions of our own country, we might develop a somewhat smug, ethnocentric, and parochial worldview. A New York-centric perspective would be only one aspect of that problem.

    When problems like these are all solved, I too will reject the concept of “better” and dissolve into nirvana. Though somehow that would seem to me what would actually be anti-social.

    My apologies for being rather critical, but attempts at meaningful and sincere dissent can be very important.

    William Osborne

  2. pgblu

    Technology’s influence on the future of clichés
    Will the phrase ‘broken record’ someday disappear from our vocabulary like the phrase ‘putting the cart before the horse’ has not?

  3. coreydargel

    I was only in England (mostly London) for a total of 16 days, but I have friends who live there. What I took from them, and from my experience being there, was that yes there is more “national
    identity” with the arts, and there is more national funding for the arts, but unfortunately what that seems to result in is even less support for experimental and iconoclastic artists than we have in the USA. It’s like imagining that all arts funding in America would come only from the N.E.A.. I asked Londoners if there was anything there comparable to places like Roulette and LPR, or festivals like Bonk, Other Minds, and Music with a View, and the answers I got were a decisive “No.”

  4. Sarble The Eye

    i think you should be careful about equating the categories ‘music/art/things that challenges accepted paradigms’ with the category ‘avant-garde.’ Avant-garde is a notion of establishment, of a setting a new definition. It carries the goal of change, certainly, but change and advancement through the setting of new pickets, entrenching terrain so it can be defended for effectively, and the front advanced and territory secured.

    As such it is sure to be in opposition to any notion of nationalism, since nationalism lays out a division between the homeland, the Volk, or the ideal or something, and those idiots over in Cave #76 (props to Mel Brooks). A nuanced national or cultural identity would allow for varieties of expression, and re-negotiations of things like style with out an counter-reaction. All that’s needed is an understanding of history, and a vibrant rather than reverential relationship to past musics. Cultivating our engagement with the foreign-ness of the music of the past helps tremendously with the foreign-ness of (some) music of the now.

    The truth, I fear, is that the focal point that the arts in America orbits, like so many polyvalent and de Broglie wave electrons, is the produced culture built for consumption. We engaged with it in very different ways, either through critique or judo-like transformation or enthusiastic embrace, but it is the one thing which binds us, one nation, under the market.

  5. colin holter

    My limited experience with the UK new music scene so far suggests that it may not be, broadly speaking, “better,” but rather that the kind of new music I personally like is more widely performed here. This is only a net improvement if all or most of us define what Corey calls “experimental and iconoclastic” music the same way, which we don’t.

  6. robin109

    Re NYC -centric
    Greetings from us in the South. Although NYC, does have an amazing amont of things going on, I feel academia and culture is to NYC centric also. Hey I am in alabama and Stockhausen’s Kontakte is being performed. In the last to years at UA we have done Berio’s Circles, clarinet sequenza, Pierrot, Cage’s Cartridge music and Artia with Fontana mix, Davidovsky’s percussion synchronism etc…. it would be nice to hear from members all across the country to prove that arts and culture exists everywhere here and it is thriving down south. Again, it is no shot against NYC but a broader prospective might make us feel a little better about our future.

  7. William Osborne

    Berlin, Paris, Barcelona, and Amsterdam would be examples of how public funding can support very lively avant-guarde art scenes, and ones that include many funky clubs, venues, and festivals.

    As mentioned, public funding also allows for greater regional diversification. With a system similar to most European countries, cities like Denver, Tulsa, Boise, Little Rock, Austin, Albuquerque, Lincoln, Tucson, Columbus (OH), Salt Lake City, Kansas City, Madison, Trenton, Nashville, Atlanta, Portland, and Miami would ALL have fulltime opera houses and well-funded state radio orchestras. I suspect most classical music fans in those cities would have little trouble describing that situation as “better.”

    And yes, Phil, the only way cultural and political ideas like these can break through parochialism, denial and ethnocentricity is to repeat them often, along with reasoned arguments and well-grounded statistical documentation.

    And thanks for the reports, Robin. That sort of new music activity is going on all over the country, but you wouldn’t know about it reading NMBx, aside from the very occasional “Radar” report beaming out into the “American Congo” to find out what the “natives” are doing. As a result of New York’s blinkered attitudes of cultural supremacy, a lot of information about a lot of great new music is lost. And worse, a lot of talent and potential cultural vitality goes relatively neglected.

    William Osborne

  8. philmusic

    “Equating culture with national pride makes the very notion of an avant-garde seem somewhat quaint, if not downright anti-social.”

    The domestication of the avant-garde is so well advanced that even folks who never read a word of James Joyce can enjoy a Bloomsday. Or if your in an American mood how about a Hemingway look a like contest?

    Hipster tours for downtown NY–go it!!!

    I don’t think its always a bad for a nation to celebrate its artists–it just thats it always a little too late.

    “There is a great difference between arts that spring from the community and arts that are imposed on the community.”

    The irony here is that – its spoken like a true gatekeeper.

    Phil Fried

  9. ottodafaye

    “Does this realization signal a NMBx that will be more regionally diversified and less New York-centric? Will we be seeing more articles from and about the heartlands to represent the “disparate and un-unified” nature of our country?”

    Yeah, you know what? There’s a bunch of great art and music making going on all over the U.S. of A. But the rest of the world doesn’t really seem to care unless it’s from New York.

    I say this because that’s what I’ve been told. Okay, maybe a small sample rate, but here’s a true story.

    A long while back I was hired to perform with the Bang On A Can Allstars. Now, I tell ya what. That’s a good band. Especially Mark and Evan, but they’re all really good, and it’s a tight ensemble.

    So I’m talking with this English guy from Sony, after the show at the Knitting Factory. I don’t remember his name, but he was there to sort out what would go on the next Allstars CD, which I guess never happened anyway. And this guy told me, and I quote “It’s too bad your group isn’t called the New York E.A.R. Unit. You’re way better than the Bangers, but in Europe we just figure if it’s happening in the States it’s in New York, and if it’s not in New York we just don’t care.”

    Hey, how much does that suck? I guess if you’re a composer it’s a reason to live in New York. But not a good enough reason, not for me anyway.

  10. davidcoll

    I mean, come on, this guy is from sony records! he’s just trying to calculate dollars and cents on this thing, marketability, etc.

    Lets not confuse that with the many people over there who know vastly more things of the goings-on in several cities in the USA. Granted new york is the london or the paris….but people over there know a thing or two of LA or SF or chicago compared to us americans knowing of festivals in Lyon or Huddersfield or whatever.

    And if they don’t know whats going on over there, they at least know the orchestras are hella good, but that unfortunately the only contemporary music they play is this thing called, ‘neo-romantic’, if that is even a fair term. Our best bet is with groups like ICE, which adopt a more country-wide model, much like over there…travelling w/in their own country is common.

    I’m getting off course. The main thing i wanted to say is that we shouldn’t concern ourselves with what ‘they’ think if we’re constantly at a lower level with press…..that goes for most cities in the us, and probably nyc and LA too unless you’re successfully writing pieces for orchestra.

  11. philmusic

    I thought that the difference between the approach to the arts in Europe and America went like this:

    In Europe they make celebrities out of intellectuals.

    In America we make intellectuals out of celebrities

    Phil Fried

  12. jchang4

    A while back I and some friends engaged in some interesting discussion on “contemporary classical” music. Phillippe gave me a bit of a history lesson on the term “avant-garde,” a lesson which is not necessarily related to this column’s topic, but since people have been using the term “avant-garde” a lot in the comments here, I was reminded of this thing that Phillippe said, and so I’m sharing it with y’all…

  13. ottodafaye


    Hey now that’s one even I didn’t think of. Even better than Rock-A-Billy, and face it, almost anything is.

    Although, I still listen to Carl Perkins.

  14. William Osborne

    It’s like imagining that all arts funding in America would come only from the N.E.A..

    This is a misconception, and not at all how European public arts funding works. In most European countries, the vast majority of the money is distributed on the state and municipal levels.

    At the State and city level, most of the funding goes to state operas and orchestras. Generally speaking, peer review juries are often selected to determine how the funding for new music will be distributed. Since the funding is distributed locally, the administrators usually have a close knowledge of the new music scene and the people involved. They understand the artist’s needs, and also have close contact with their communities and understand what sort of art they would like to have and need.

    There is also competition among the various regions to draw the best artists, which helps insure multiple funding sources.

    In this sense, the NEA is a bit of an oddity. How could a national institution have any idea how to distribute arts funding for 300 million people? That sort of work needs to be done locally. Unfortunately, in the USA most states and cities have very limited arts funding programs.

    In reality, the NEA is more or less a token organization with virtually no funding. It simply serves as a place marker — a sort of window dressing so that the US government cannot be accused of not funding the arts at all. When the day comes (and it will come) when we have public funding for the arts like ALL other “first world” countries, then it will also be administered and distributed locally, and with the usual methods that provide reasonable guarantees for fairness and professionalism.

    We do not need to fall for the usual quasi red-baiting arguments against big government and all that. A close look at European systems of funding shows that they are in fact considerably more democratic than the American system, which is not only dysfunctional and inadequate, but also tends to be rather plutocratic.

    William Osborne

  15. twelvetones

    Osborne’s comment points to a self-proclaimed “supremacy” culture in New York that has been, for many of us, apparent for quite some time. As he and Robin point out, quite a bit of activity involving new music (and american as well) passes with little notice; and not because it does not exist and is not being performed, but because the channels of communication are seldom taking the position, as Osborne points out with NMBx, to properly post notice. Not unless of course it’s in their own back yard of NYC.

    It’s all very fine in NYC, as any major metropolis might be understood with its richness of culture, but it is not the center of the cultural universe, and indeed, there are many quite remarkable people making remarkable music all over the world.

    I would suggest that these comments from Osborne/Robin, that are quite true and frankly very good to hear, are striking a marvelous chord. Keep up the meaningful and sincere comments.

    Christopher Greco

  16. William Osborne

    There is an article by Roger Cohen in the NY Times today related to our discussion about public arts funding entitled “The King Is Dead.” (The title is taken from a song by Coldplay.) Cohen has taught at Harvard and is one of the Time’s most senior editors. See:

    In light of the current financial crisis, he predicts that a new era will now evolve opposed to the neo-liberal economic policies that have dominated our country for the last 30 years. Government has been so reduced that even the basic infrastructure of our country has been weakened: He writes:

    “It’s absurd that earmarks — the self-interested budgetary foibles of senators and representatives — should dictate the progressive dilapidation of America. How can the commonwealth thrive when its bridges sag, its levees cede, its public transport creaks?”

    He notes the materialistic orientation of our elite, how 47% of Harvard’s 2007 graduating class took jobs in the financial sector, and suggests the country needs a new focus.

    “College seniors might start by reading ‘A New Bank to Save Our Infrastructure’ in the current edition of The New York Review of Books, an impassioned plea from Felix Rohatyn (who knows something of financial rescues) and Everett Ehrlich for the creation of a National Infrastructure Bank, or N.I.B.

    “Its aim, at a time when the Chinese are investing $200 billion in railways and building 97 new airports, would be to use public and private capital to give coherence to a vast program of public works. ‘This can improve productivity, fight unemployment and raise our standard of living,’ Rohatyn told me.

    “So, young minds, sign up for the N.I.B. Before doing so, read Nick Taylor’s stirring ‘American-Made: The Enduring Legacy of the W.P.A.: When F.D.R. Put the Nation to Work.’ It shows how the Works Progress Administration, a linchpin of Roosevelt’s New Deal, put millions of unemployed to work on dams, airports and the like. It’s a book about how imaginative political leadership can rally a nation in crisis.

    They’re listening to Coldplay down on Wall Street:

    Now the old king is dead! Long live the king!

    “’Yes, the death of the old is also the birth of the new. In my end is my beginning. It’s time for the best and the brightest to step forth and rediscover the public sphere.’”

    I’m not sure we need anything as extensive as the W.PA., but we do need to re-acquaint ourselves with the meaning of the common good and the use of collective efforts through the efficient, intelligent use of government.

    According to a recent Times report, the US government will spend about 800 billion to rescue the financial sector from its current crisis (which was produced by little more than stupid greed and poor oversight.) That sum is 5970 times larger than the NEA budget. Even a tiny fraction of that 800 billion regularly spent on the arts would give us a lasting legacy and greatly improve our cultural infrastructure. Instead, our government’s money just goes up in smoke. Think of the trillions gone in Iraq.

    Why are so many of our “best and brightest” taught to think only in terms of making tons of money, and not to think of the public sector as a place where one’s work could be deeply meaningful?

    William Osborne

  17. MarkNGrant

    Anti-intellectualism is as American as apple pie
    Anti-intellectualism is so deeply ingrained in this country’s DNA (see H.L. Mencken, Richard Hofstadter, and, more recently, Susan Jacoby) that a quasi-European respect for the arts ab ovo, in vacuo, sans regard for the almighty bottom line, will NEVER occur here. And as I’m sure you’ve all noticed, this (with apologies to William Carlos Williams) “in-the-American-grain” attitude has only gotten much, much worse in recent years here. Pop culture is the unintended but politically correct revenge of the anti-intellectual bigot in American life.

  18. William Osborne

    I agree, Mark, that there are fundamental problems with arts appreciation and funding in America. The cultural critic and film-maker Theresa Duncan felt that far from transcendent glamour, the cultural industry is often a “thuggish Frankenstein” motivated by greed. She saw:

    “…the circus-like aspects of the main industry in our home city of Los Angeles, with its tiny hateful core of thuggish Frankenstein manipulation and surrounding penumbra of pink-frosted teenage dumbassitude. Unhappily, these elements of entertainment seem to be a rainbow hued enhancement of much that is now most truly American.”

    It is interesting how often the positive aspects of pop music is discussed here without mentioning the other side of the tortilla, the “penumbra pink-frosted teenage dumassitude” that so strongly limits most of the genre – including even much of the alternative scene.

    Nonetheless, it is still fully possible, with enough vision and determination, that we could develop a system of appreciation and support for the “high” arts similar to what ALL other industrial countries have.

    If we are going to claim Americans are anti-intellectual, we might need sounder sociological sources than the unscientific essays of cultural critics – and especially anti-American misanthropes like Mencken. If we are anti-intellectual, why is our university system considered the best in the world? Why have Americans won about half of the Nobel Prizes since WWII? Why are our orchestras and musicians among the best in the world? Why are our music schools so esteemed by the international student body? Why did over a million people watch the live Met broadcasts? One could go on and on about American intellectual achievement which is almost reverently admired around the world.

    We also are very good at publicly funding some things, such as technological and scientific research ranging from a space program that has no comparison in the world, nuclear physics programs such as represented by the entire city of Los Alamos, the world’s cutting edge medical research, and even this publicly created Internet we are using to correspond.

    It is not at all an impossible challenge to direct this same sort of intellectual energy and public funding toward the arts. It is a matter of people, and especially artists, creating a better vision and hope for what America can be. When we say it will “never” happen” we create a false impression that destroys people’s belief in what we can accomplish and what we can be.

    Take heart and use your voice to create this vision and hope. It will take a lot of patient, determined work, but we are the generation that can begin this transformation.

    William Osborne


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