More Famous Than You

More Famous Than You

There has been a deluge of commentary in response to Dan Joseph’s extremely measured reaction to Daniel Asia’s recent anti-John Cage polemic for The Huffington Post, as well as a more modest, but also significant set of reactions to my own thoughts about how the arbiters of taste and relevance in the media ultimately determine what becomes mainstream. It amazes me that now, 13 years into the 21st century, there are so many people still actively fighting the battles of the 20th century.

I’m pretty much open to any idea except an idea that winds up being exclusionary. To me the genre sanctity debates (whether they’re about music that is not popular enough to be “popular” or about music that’s not classical enough to be “classical”) are ultimately about keeping people out. I like letting people in. Similarly, the debates about whether music should be either tonal or atonal, minimalist or maximalist, precisely notated, contain elements of indeterminacy, or be completely improvised on the spot are all fences that ultimately keep folks from enjoying the picnic. From my vantage point, the 21st century has gotten past a lot of this, both in terms of the plurality of aesthetics that inform today’s creators and interpreters, as well as in the ways in which listeners come to this music.

LPR Carter Memorial

There wasn’t a single empty seat at LPR’s all-Carter program last night and standing room seemed worse than a rush hour commute. So much for Carter’s music not being “part of the popular soundscape.”

In the late 1970s when I first met him, Elliott Carter represented “uptown music,” an approach to music I initially felt, as an aspiring “downtown composer,” that I needed to reject during the final years of the stylistic wars being waged around me. Yet Carter lived downtown in Greenwich Village for the final 60 years of his life. On Sunday night, his memorial concert was held at (Le) Poisson Rouge and it was the biggest crowd I had ever seen there. When I first met John Cage—not long after I had first met Carter—he represented for me the freedom to do anything I wanted to do. Of course, it turned out that there was ultimately method to Cage’s seeming madness. He also wasn’t open to everything.

But now with decades of hindsight, all that music has been absorbed into our history. Cage and Carter are both no longer with us, which means that they’ll probably finally be embraced by some sectors of the classical music community who only care about dead composers. They will undoubtedly both be lionized in a way that was never possible while either of them were among the living, although they probably will never catch up to the fame of Beethoven and that gang. Not because their compositions are any less worthy, but because we continue to subscribe to the absurd received wisdom that music evolved to a higher plane in Europe than anywhere else in the world, and that after reaching a pinnacle somewhere in the 19th century it devolved from there. But just as those classical tastemakers may decide to begrudgingly allow a few 20th-century Americans into the vaulted canon of Western classical music, the pop tastemakers won’t care a hoot about this news from yesterday and will proclaim certain fleeting trends to be in and everything else out. So for better or worse, Beethoven and whoever is the Lady Gaga du jour will always be more famous than the rest of us who are making music that we feel passionate about.

Nevertheless, fascinating music continues to be made all over the planet; it continues to evolve and to incorporate elements from wherever and whatever its creators see fit.

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13 thoughts on “More Famous Than You

  1. Corey Dargel

    NMBx should invite the Cincinnati-based composer and percussionist Allen Otte (a John Cage expert) to write a response to Daniel Asia’s myopic and ignorant diatribe. I have almost no respect for The Huffington Post, but perhaps it would be worth submitting to HuffPo a response written by Otte and signed by as many composers and performers and listeners as possible. The notion that there is something *wrong* with an artist who thinks in “meta-” ways is, quite frankly, stupid, as is the argument that Cage’s music has no structure or discipline (though it may be true that musicians who don’t truly understand Cage’s philosophy of music-making and performance give inadequately structured performances of Cage’s music). Finally, “directionless[ness]” is something I would expect a composer and professor in the 21st century (like Daniel Asia) to understand as a *valuable* quality of many many many 20th- and 21st-century compositions that stand out as exemplary, moving, and trend-setting. Once again… get thee to Allen Otte.

  2. Bunita Marcus

    “Nevertheless, fascinating music continues to be made all over the planet; it continues to evolve and to incorporate elements from wherever and whatever its creators see fit.”

    AMEN. I agree.

    Anyway you can write good music is fine. Do it. Be friends, don’t judge your fellow artists, learn from them. We need to support each other as composers and support all musicians/performers. The future of music is in our hands. Let’s be generous and lead music in all it’s expressions into the future.

  3. David McMullin

    I like ice cream, and cookies and sweet desserts. And I like fruit and vegetables, and fish and meat, and savory dishes from all types of cuisines. Not everyone shares these preferences, but no one acts the least bit surprised by them. I also like very spicy food, and straight whiskey, and espresso, strong, without sugar. I’ll snack on lemons as if they were oranges. Some of these habits do strike people as a little weird, but no one seems to be offended. No one ever questions the authenticity of my odd predilections or the possible motives behind them, and no one suggests that there’s anything morally suspect about any of this. Others who share my taste for maple syrup do not feel betrayed if they catch me with black coffee, or vice versa. I’ve never heard anyone self-righteously declare that “that’s not food!”

    But when it comes to music, some people get all riled up, and just can’t stand the idea that someone likes what they don’t and wants to make more of it. Why is that?

  4. Greg Robin

    Frank, you are dead on. Those battles were fought and maybe they were necessary at that time. That said, I don’t think any composer can argue against the importance of Cage and Carter. Even if they don’t like the music, they should at least understand their (Carter and Cage’s) importance to the craft. We do need to just make our art and go about our buisness of passionate music making. There are those that will always think that the pinnacle was reached and that we are in a total decline. Let them. It won’t stop me from composing forth!

  5. John Borstlap

    Is serious music a ‘picnic’? Does the effort and the risk of attempting to make distinctions between what’s bad, what’s better, what’s excellent, mean that one wants to ‘keep people out’? Couldn’t it be that openness to all kinds of potential listeners could mean that some of them would have to make some kind of effort to experience serious music on more than a picnic level? What does ‘popularity’ mean? The problem with this kind of texts is that in the background, an egalitarian, politically-correct world view seems to want to blur all differences between artistic efforts, as if this were ‘unfair’ to the musically challenged. One can be open to all kinds of music and still make quality distinctions. Cage is not a composer but a decomposer, not difficult to see / hear, and to conclude from his own writings. Carter wanted to celebrate the buzz of modern life, and probably he meant by that a depiction of the busiest crossing of NY city or London friday afternoon peak hour, as if modern life consisted exclusively of neurotic and meaningless activity (at other times he harked back to Schoenbergian expressionist loneliness, like the mood of a derelict industrial zone). American music can contribute to Western musical culture from its multicultural situation and openness to different approaches towards the art form, but that does not necessarily mean to let go of any awareness of artistic quality.

    1. Brighton

      Agree with John B. Frank wants to give every composer a trophy for participating. Ultimately, if we care about western art music (which is something worth caring about) somebody must engage in actual informed criticism. I just finished “The Writings of Elliott Carter,” which contains a great deal of literate, respectful criticism. Wuorinen is devastating on the bullshit being passed off as classical art music and he’s right. Frank’s own interview with him is quite entertaining.
      Sorry, but composers are not equally good. Even if we all try hard and put our hearts into it. That’s why it’s worth going to music school to get better. It’s not summer camp y’all.

    2. Frank J. Oteri Post author

      that does not necessarily mean to let go of any awareness of artistic quality
      Ah, but who determines what is artistic quality? I personally love listening to the music of John Cage whom I and so many other people who have commented here do not believe is a “decomposer” as you have castigated him. Are we wrong? Are you right and therefore we are wrong?

      How much Cage have you listened to? Thankfully, as was noted by Christian Hertzog, there are hundreds of recordings to choose from spanning his earliest efforts (I love the three Gertrude Stein settings), the pioneering works for percussion ensemble and prepared piano (Bacchanale and the Constructions are works I frequently return to), the amazingly simple but rapturously beautiful works of the late 1940s (e.g. The Seasons, String Quartet in Four Parts, Six Melodies for Violin and Piano, etc.), the radical and often wild chance-derived pieces for which he is mostly known (though more by received wisdom than by people who castigate these pieces having actually listened to them, e.g. Imaginary Landscapes Nos. 4 and 5 for 12 radios and 52 gramophone recordings respectively, works which anticipate today’s mash-ups) or the serenely majestic late number pieces, which are my favorite of his works.

      I also love listening to Carter, whose music you have pigeon-holed into being about “the buzz of modern life” in an urban environment; I suggest you listen to Sound Fields from 2008 or even his String Quartet No. 1 (1950-51), which he spent a year working on in the American southwest. And if you think Carter’s 1965 Piano Concerto, a work in part inspired by the construction of the Berlin Wall, as akin to walking across the “busiest intersection in NY” you might be afraid to walk around here. I’ve done so my entire life; it’s usually less intense. But I love the intense experience of hearing this piece (sitting down, in doors). Am I and the crowds that almost made LPR a fire hazard on Sunday night wrong to like Carter’s music?

      Luckily in the 21st century, except for some latter day Hatfields and McCoys who want to keep old feuds still smoldering, we don’t have to take sides and can appreciate as well as be enriched by the staggering variety of musical accomplishments that have been made across millennia all over the planet. We can also create the music we want to create without worrying that it doesn’t meet someone’s standard of “artistic quality.”

      As a composer, I have set up some very particular parameters in order to create my own music. But I am so happy that others have parameters that are completely different from my own. How boring a world where everyone was forced to write the same music! (I pity the composers who were forced to work under, e.g., the Zhdanov doctrine–although admittedly some created musical treasures despite the restrictions. Think of all the amazing cultural artifacts that might have been created in the past by potential creators whose artistic potential was unfortunately smashed by the aesthetic prisons set up by self-appointed arbiters of taste and relevance ( i.e. I treasure the few art songs that survive by Alma Maria Schindler [later Mahler]; too bad Gustav–himself admittedly a transformative composer–didn’t think a woman should compose music, etc.)

      Again, in the 21st century, we can do whatever we want and we’re better off because of that both as creators and as listeners. I derive immense pleasure and also get creative fuel from listening to a wide variety of music, much of it very different from music I would write myself. Whether it is Cage or Carter or Stravinsky or Schoenberg or Meredith Monk (whose name has come up here) or whomever else anyone wants to name herein, there will be fans of some of these folks who are not fans of the others and some of these fans are so sure that the music they like is superior to the music they don’t like, which I think is a pity. Perhaps even more than loving to listen to any of these people whose names I listed (and the myriad others who line my walls whose names are not here for the sake of expedient reading), I love hearing something I haven’t heard before. That’s what the experience of new music is all about after all. And, I would dare say, so also is the experience of being alive.

    3. David McMullin

      “One can be open to all kinds of music and still make quality distinctions”

      This is true, but one also has to accept that others will make those distinctions differently. When others find tremendous value in music that I’m indifferent to, I try to give them the benefit of the doubt and at least ask whether maybe I’m missing something. And I’ve found that the rare piece of music that I really hate, if it can get under my skin and get me angry, that’s often a sign that it’s got something going for it that I might learn to come to grips with.

  6. Mark N. Grant

    FJO, you are always the ultimate broadminded, evenhanded gentleman. Forgive me, but I, for one, felt that Dan Joseph’s “extremely measured reaction” on Asia’s blog, while presenting a charming veneer of balance, was quite tendentious. After dutiful, pseudo-respectful nods to non-Cage fanciers, Joseph sticks a genteel knife in them: “How an American composer and professor, Daniel Asia in this case, living and working in the western states no less, could still have no real understanding of or interest in a composer who is arguably our greatest and most influential figure….”

    Come again? Mr. Asia has plenty of “real” understanding of Cage. It’s just not “your” understanding, Mr. Joseph. Are we to guess that if it differs from yours, it’s not “real”? John Adams and Virgil Thomson (I previously cited them here: have made public analyses of listening to Cage not dissimilar from Asia’s. And what, Dan Joseph, makes you think that Asia and like-minded others aren’t already thoroughly familiar with the “dramatically expanded field of possibilities” you cite as Asia’s glaring omission? Why do you assume that merely to know these “possibilities” bestows a duty to endorse them as an expressive imperative for the contemporary composer?

    Ah, how shrewd Harold Clurman was when he wrote, “I have since concluded that the inner drive motivating Cage’s lifework is religious.” Because while people of goodwill differ on the subject of Cage, it seems judging from these blogthreads that it’s only the pro-Cage people (with the exception of FJO and one or two others) who patrol their side of the fence as if you’ve dissed their religion. How could someone not have respect, if not reverence, for Cage, they whine. How could someone intelligent possibly think those things, they seem to suggest, as they go about their unseemly, overreaching, ad hominem attacks on the Cage-unfriendly, as if it’s their moral mission to discredit the intelligence and competence of people who disagree with them and stamp them out. They are like sore Mitt Romney losers who are still deludedly asserting that widespread voter fraud reelected Obama. Or Scientologists seeking to character-assassinate apostates.

    Fellows and gals who like Cage, you don’t have the power to excommunicate non-adherents to the Church of Cage from the greater Cathedral of Music.

  7. Colin Holter

    Of course the deification of Cage (or any other human, and this is a topic Mark and I have wrangled about more than once) is retrogressive; no one would argue otherwise. But the reason, I suspect, why so many Cage fans become defensive about Asia’s piece lies in its second-to-last paragraph, in which Asia stops talking about music and starts talking about people – people who, like myself, have had genuinely powerful emotional responses to Cage’s music. Asia seems to be accusing us of willingly embracing some kind of aesthetic delusion, which is an enormously offensive and condescending proposition.

    There are a lot of musicians whose work I don’t particularly care for, but I’d never make the claim that the people who love their music don’t really love it and in fact are making a cynical pretense that their naked emperor is fully clothed.

    1. Philip Fried

      The comments I made that bloggers are stating their beliefs about Stravinsky and Cage, would seem to agree with Mark (religion), but cuts both ways. The particular musical style advantaged may be different but the disdain for the rest is all too similar.


      It does seem that Mr. Asia’s remarks were directed to those who have little experience with recent music, and a limited knowledge of the rest. It is an attempt to convince with words rather than sounds.


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