After the news of Elliott Carter’s passing earlier this week, I was quite moved by the outpouring of tributes to the composer that I encountered through social media. Obviously my window to the world through social media is skewed toward new music nerds, but even so, I have to admit I was slightly surprised at the extent of the outpouring. Among many of my new music friends, Carter was a figure who was more begrudgingly admired than universally adored, though this seemed to be changing in recent years. It says something about Carter’s musical imagination that even those who professed to dislike his work had a favorite piece by him.
It also got me thinking about the limits of what we can do as composers to advocate for our own music. When our music is poorly or (worse) indifferently received, we may perceive it as a failure of presentation, contextualization, education, or marketing. The audience just didn’t have the right frame of reference. Or, maybe we think the problem is the music itself. Maybe it was too intricate, too subtle, too esoteric. Maybe it was flawed, or just plain bad.
Most of the discussion around what to do about the state of new music today seems to vacillate between these two proposals. Change the music, or change the stuff around the music. I should say that I’m an advocate of both of these plans in certain situations. But I also wonder if there is a natural limit to what these changes are capable of. Maybe it doesn’t come down to intelligence or education. Maybe it comes down to aesthetics, or to put it more bluntly, maybe it’s a matter of taste.
For example, lots of people like spicy food, including me. But I wouldn’t call someone misinformed for not liking spicy food, and just because that person dislikes a particular spicy dish, doesn’t mean that it’s not well-made. Dissonance in music is similar–some like it mild, others want a jar of hot sauce on hand at all times. Maybe this seems obvious, but the difference is that dissonance still offends people in ways that spicy food doesn’t. No one insists that chefs should stop making spicy food, or that spicy food has ruined gourmet cuisine forever.
The idea that some music is an “acquired taste” is not exactly new, but I hope we can learn to avoid those annoyingly classist mistaken assumptions that often ride along with other acquired tastes. Not everyone will like Carter’s music, or mine, or yours, and that’s okay.