quality control
New Music’s Quality Problem

New Music’s Quality Problem

quality control

Photo courtesy of Eduardo on Flickr.

Whenever I come across a new music community post about the so-called “audience problem,” I think to myself: isn’t that a little entitled? What makes composers feel so deserving of an audience? It seems like the entire audience problem debate stubbornly looks outward, asking questions about marketing, “outreach,” and accessibility, all the while carefully avoiding some seriously necessary self-examination. Instead of an audience problem, I think new music has a quality problem.

I know this word might seem a little old-fashioned, conservative even, but its disappearance has left some still-unrepaired holes in our language. I’m not arguing for any sort of “objective quality”—it’s hard to defend black-and-white binaries after postmodernism. (Even those binaries one might put at either pole of a continuum.) Likewise, it’s fairly uncontroversial to say that quality is culturally constructed, and that its indices might change from generation to generation. However, though postmodernism afforded some suppleness and relativity, its norms were quietly and insidiously eroded by late-stage (or neoliberal) capitalism’s very objectivity-oriented standards.

The present antimodernism, at its outset so strongly critical of binary logic, has started to look an awful lot like its structuralist predecessor. Instead of good/bad, present mores yield to profitable/unprofitable or popular/unpopular.* Worse, because new music culture thinks it has left such binaries behind, it lost those rich discursive weirdnesses one finds orbiting around absolutes in an inabsolute world. Defensively, it lost the words to talk about quality and then, sadly, the energy to conceptualize its increasing fuzziness.

I hear the phrase “it’s a matter of taste” quite a lot. What a prohibitive position—it sounds like “our differences in perception present irreconcilable differences and we should stop talking now.” “Taste” and “quality” strike me as entirely different forces. Taste brings into the room all those alliances one makes with the world, the ways one forms an identity. Of course, I don’t really have control over my taste—I inherit it generationally, biologically, culturally, from role models and archetypes, and from social and political modes of control. I can, however, establish some critical distance between myself and my taste. If I can’t, if I am unable to separate myself at least a little bit from the things I identify with, then I must live in some kind of agenciless misread-Foucauldian nightmare. Quality means something different, something exactly about the agency one exercises between oneself and one’s identity. I can think of few things more subjective than this space, but at the same time I think it’s possible and important to talk about it.

Another prohibitive conversational barrier comes in directives to “focus on one’s own work instead of interfering in others’.” I find this particular rhetorical strategy absolutely incompatible with the way most composers justify their existence. If I tell myself, constantly, that my musical work is incredibly and unquestionably socially important, why is its content inconsequential? Like “it’s a matter of taste,” this also invites a conversation about agency. I believe that music wields its own power, separate from the human agency of its composition and performance. Because music affects people, albeit invisibly, the new music community must find a way to meaningfully address the responsibilities of composition, performance, and curation. As I see it now, the greater community I cherish lacks any mechanism of accountability—it proliferates discourse, tirelessly circulating around the unfalsifiable idea that subjectivity somehow means incommunicability.

Quality is an urgency and an intensity, a compositional concern and a social language to address it. Surely we can speak of musical necessity without reverting to old and bankrupt black-and-white. I will write three more posts for NewMusicBox, increasingly attempting to open doors to a “discourse of quality”—a mode of talking, abstractly, weirdly, about our musical agencies. Next week I will address elitism, power, and the broader structural impediments to music-world conversation.


* WQXR’s report entitled “In a Rough Job Market, More Conservatories Stress Business Skills” reveals this type of objective thinking better than almost anything. David Cutler, University of South Carolina Professor of Musical Entrepreneurship, proposes the following:

“[…P]erhaps part of the recital requirement might be: you need to get 200 people there to get an A, or 150 people there to get a B.” Students might also be graded on how they can rethink the presentation to include multimedia or other visual elements.

Note the quiet reintroduction of objective metrics, posed in the guise of postmodern flexibility, when it comes to evaluating art.


Marek Poliks

Marek Poliks

Marek Poliks (b.1989) writes chamber music at Harvard University, where he works towards a PhD. His music mines for expressivity in threadbare spaces, exhausted resources, and absolute vacuum. He studies with Chaya Czernowin, but recent primary teachers also include John Luther Adams, Rick Burkhardt, Roger Reynolds, Steven Takasugi, Hans Tutschku, and Amnon Wolman. Prior to this, he undertook the majority of his education with his mentor Josh Levine at Oberlin College and Conservatory.


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.

41 thoughts on “New Music’s Quality Problem

  1. william osborne

    I agree with you about the relationships between postmodernism and neo-liberalism. I discussed this topic at length and with a focus on contemporary classical music in an article entitled “Marketplace of Ideas” published on ArtsJournal ten years ago. See:


    I also frequently discussed the idea here on NMBx several years ago. Here’s an example from March of 2007, which was a rewrite of an earlier comment I wrote for the now defunct gen-mus list sometime in the 90s.


    My concerns about neo-liberalism and postmodern orthodoxy were resisted, but I’ve noticed the ideas have gained some traction in the last couple years, mostly from modernists looking to counter postmodern orthodoxy.

    The debate thus seems to be between two polarized philosophical encampments: modernism vs. postmodernism. The first irony is that postmodernism challenged binary thought, but that through devolving to orthodoxy its philosophies have become one side in a binary debate. The second irony is that modernists seem to be trying to turn back the clock and re-establish some ideas postmodernism largely discredited. The third irony is that we’re left looking for a middle ground that postmodernism was supposed to establish.

    I look forward to your examination of these problems, whatever form they might take.

  2. Joshua Banks Mailman

    Music criticism, analysis, theory, and other kinds of discourse about music are meant to help address some of these issues. But that only works if composers, audiences, and readers pay attention or at least acknowledge the existence of these discourses.

    1. Marek Poliks

      Thanks for your comment. I see your point Joshua, but I don’t know many musicologists/theory who would identify the function of their field as such. As for criticism, I’ll speak about that in a future article.

      1. Joshua Banks Mailman

        Fields (musicology/theory) don’t really have “functions” as such. (That’s not really how it works.) But if these scholars seriously think they have no influence on how music is perceived and received (or can’t have or ought not have such influence), they ought look again. If interconnections between musicology and theory/analysis and criticism are not at the forefront of your mind, that might be something to read up on, as it’s been discussed by many, including David Lewin, Edward T. Cone, Arnold Schoenberg, Joseph Kerman, and many others with a spectrum of opinions about such matters.

        1. Marek Poliks

          I don’t want to close any doors to members of any discipline when it comes to talking about musical quality.

          I’m speaking about a contemporary problem – a landscape very alien to the names you reference (linked in their orientation towards modernism). Surely music theory can operate as a critical apparatus, but it’s /really/ hard to argue that it still does. Today, composers and performers largely comprise the discourse of new music. Certainly we are more critically diverse than this, but the musicologists I know who are actively engaged in the type of practice you suggest constitute an incredibly small minority. (For that reason, I love and appreciate them all the more).

          However, I certainly wish that music theory was willing to engage with specifically New Music in this way – if your comments (which I don’t quite understand) actually are just endorsing a more inclusive, discursively diverse conversation about music, then I completely agree with you. I’m curious if you can be at all more specific about the practice of this, or if you’ve participated in this sort of conversation.

          (The idea that disciplines ‘are meant’ to operate in some way functionalizes fields every bit as much. We can speak candidly.)

          1. Joshua Banks Mailman

            Actually the names I referenced are not linked in their orientation towards modernism; some are barely linked at all, and certainly they are not all linked together by any one strand. It’s very easy to argue that music theory operates as a critical apparatus. Composers and performers today rarely contribute anything constructive to the discourse about new music, largely for the reasons you articulate in your original post (that they think it all comes down to just taste or opinion etc.). Indeed I do endorse a more inclusive, discursively diverse conversation about music. Yes. Ok, I suppose I indirectly hint at some of the plurality I mean, when I discuss different concepts of listening in my article: “Seven Metaphors for (Music) Listening: DRAMaTIC” Journal of Sonic Studies v.2/1, 2012, and republished in The Open Space Magazine 15, 2013  

          2. Marek Poliks

            Oof, though I refuse to give a cent of ground to my blanket ‘modernism’ (I mean, come on – GMIT, Perspectives, SCHOENBERG, Opera as Drama) one cannot deny their chronological linkage. All I mean is that one cannot easily affix contemporary names to such a list (sure, Julia Spinola, Michael Rebhahn) – give me a list of writings about Lachenmann (cherished but certainly not the newest of the new music) comparable in size to historiographical accounts about Schoenberg and I’ll happily, absolutely, and completely withdraw my comment.

            Further, I ask you, myself a new music composer and participant – point me to the location of these current musicological studies. I would be absolutely fascinated to discover a world of theoretical study directly adhered to, and ultimately greater than, the absolutely composer/performer-driven new music discursive landscape. (I look at ‘Perspectives,’ for example, or even ‘New Music and Aesthetics,’ and see a strong and meaningful disjuncture). Sure, the field of sound studies, one example, has a lot to do with the type of listening categories you put forward in your article (and, of course, I think of Jonathan Sterne and Veit Erlmann), and the concepts created in these worlds are meaningful and interesting. So infrequently, though, do such things deal directly with new music!

          3. joshua Banks Mailman

            Mr. Poliks,
            I think your comment “linked in their orientation toward modernism” suggested something a bit different than what you are now saying you meant. Anyway, I find that present discourse that ignores past discourse is tiresome, as is all this thrashing around against “modernism.” I’ll just leave it there.

            I appreciate the apt points made in your posting. I hope more fruitful discourse stems from it.

          4. David McMullin

            “Composers and performers today rarely contribute anything constructive to the discourse about new music…”

            We contribute the music.

      2. Ray Kohn (@Tecchler)

        Intriguing dialogue between you and Joshua. My suspicion (as a composer) is that you are both becoming increasingly focused upon the effect (or lack of impact) that musical criticism and theory has upon practice. The elephant in the room, so to speak, is the impact that other social, economic, scientific and philosophical thinking and action is having upon criticism as well as composition and performance (I don’t just mean the dysfunctional impact of neo-liberalism).

        Is it possible that by attempting to extract some sort of direct connection between musical theory and practice (even when so “obvious” a connection appears to exist eg Schoenberg), we are falling into a reductionist fallacy – a hole into which we dig ourselves then believe we can extract ourselves by digging further?

  3. Phil Fried

    “… a “discourse of quality”—a mode of talking, abstractly, weirdly, about our musical agencies. ”

    I’m from a different generation Marek so I’m not sure what you mean by “agencies”. Could you explain further?

    If by “quality” you mean the possession and understanding of technique it is my understanding that many composers feel that, borrowing from the visual arts, technique is just another style. Not to mention which styles and their related techniques are in question.

    Perhaps this is just a renewal of the “sizzle or the steak” debate.

    Phil Fried

    1. Marek Poliks

      Hi Phil,

      Moving backwards – I am definitely not talking about technique, inasmuch as the word implies measurable standards of aptitude. In this sense, I agree – ‘technique’ in itself (a fetish) can merely mean an aesthetic (though I think it’s a little more complicated than that).

      What I am talking about, though, is agency (agencies). The first agency I’d probably borrow from Hannah Arendt (maybe especially ‘The Human Condition’) meaning the ability to act, to ‘speak-for,’ and also to speak against oneself. I judge quality – I try to separate myself from my taste, from my identity. I engage with some thing on its own terms. Because I like this to be subjective, for me quality means a personal judgment of intensity or urgency articulated against myself and my taste. I don’t expect others to share my opinion, but I invite others to explain theirs, and by doing so together (in ways that I hope to explain in posts 3 and 4) we can reinvigorate a collective discourse of quality.

      The second agency I’d take from Jane Bennett (particularly from ‘Vibrant Matter’), meaning that when we act, we act in concert with a storm of things (and in fact, we are ourselves a storm of things). In this sense, I say that music has agency – that it acts, it acts upon people, it changes meaningful things in the world. Further, quality happens here, in that music compels people, it enacts force, is itself urgent and necessary.

      As far as sizzle and steak are concerned – I’m agnostic, a vegetarian. Ultimately, all I care about is maintaining a conversation.

      1. Joseph Prestamo

        Interestingly enough, I’m pretty sure I would define ‘technique’ very similarly to your first paragraph on agency. Frankly, I have never really understood technique being defined as style or aesthetic. Isn’t technique some sort of measure of skill? What does style have to do with skill?

        1. william osborne

          A technique is a procedure for completing a task. It can also denote the skill with which a procedure is accomplished. She has excellent technique with the 12 tone technique.

          Postmodernism might question the accomplishment with which techniques are employed. Music is judged only within the parameters of its own terms. Feminist musicologists esteemed Madonna because she presumably worked well within the technical procedures of her field. (Not sure I fully agree.)

          Modernism, by contrast, sometimes asserted that some techniques (procedures) were inherently illegitimate regardless of how well they were used. Hence even composers like Shostakovitch, Britten, Menotti, Rorem, and Barber became unacceptable.

  4. Kile Smith

    Hi Marek,

    When you say, “I’m not arguing for any sort of “objective quality”—it’s hard to defend black-and-white binaries after postmodernism,” I wish you’d give it a try. Just because something is hard doesn’t mean it’s not worth doing. (And the opposite of postmodernism isn’t necessarily binaries.)

    Objective quality is real. Sure, defining it is hard, which is why I tell myself or a student that when a phrase is bad–I use the word bad, if it’s bad–I explain why. I’m not sure why there are teachers and students, or piano juries or metronomes or tuners otherwise. Something can be in tune in one of innumerable tuning systems, but out of tune is just wrong.

    All postmodernism did was to expose modernism as the simple “we’re better, because we’re here” chauvinism it was. But it forgot something along the way. It looked at dusk and evening, saw no line between the two, and said that light and dark are illusions. But it forgot that everyone can see day and night.

    It forgot that the statement “there’s no objective truth” is itself a statement of truth. The snake swallows itself; there’s no “after postmodernism.” There was never any postmodernism to begin with.

    Which is fine; we don’t need it. We need objective quality. I look forward to more of your thoughts on this.

    1. Marek Poliks

      Because I find objectivity very difficult to talk about, I’ll answer your question in three ways:

      If you insist that objective qualities exist and are tangible, and we cannot find some solution to our disagreement, then my argument is merely that the contemporary situation believes fully in such objective qualities (though it ties them to the market), but vocalizes as if it doesn’t. This discrepancy is problematic to both of us.

      My contention with you comes from this – postmodernism did not just implode binaries and index colonialism. Postmodernism actually attributed cultural agency to these binaries and through a process of historical excavation/archaeology/historiography it evidenced their mutability – (see Foucault’s History of Sexuality). I take away from postmodernism a type of antihumanism respectful towards cultural and social difference, one necessarily incompatible with the type of humanism you suggest. Postmodernism didn’t say light and dark are illusions (though, I mean, one could argue that people have been saying this since Kant or even Plato) – instead it said, the ways in which we talk about ‘lightness’ and ‘darkness’ are culturally constructed, local, and actually (in part) influence the way we think about them. Returning to the topic, I believe indices of quality cannot be objective (that is, timeless and universal) – instead, as I write above, I believe that realizing and interpreting quality has to do more with little quantum flutters within ourselves, ways in which we build distance between our parts and predilections, the ever-changing ways we teach ourselves to evaluate.

      My last answer is short. Quentin Meillassoux’s writes in ‘After Finitude’ about absolutes in a way that I don’t believe anyone else ever has. (He would disagree with all the statements I made above, except for maybe my generalizations about postmodernism). If you haven’t already read it, you might find it extremely interesting.

  5. william osborne

    A possible weakness in this discussion could be reductive definitions of postmodernism. This would be ironic, since one tenant of postmodernism is that our definitions and axioms are often more subjective and self-serving than we realize.

      1. william osborne

        I completely agree. It is very difficult to discuss issues like these in a blog format. So much has to be left out, and the slow and laborious process of exchange leads to misunderstandings. All the same, I think your efforts are very beneficial.

  6. Doug Brennan

    “Other People’s Compositions ‘Not Good Enough’, Says Marek Poliks.”

    … Is what this article should be titled.

    1. Brighton

      I think that’s being unfair. The author is legitimately concerned that composers lack respect for the art form and the high levels at which it has heretofore been practiced. His observations would be valid were he merely a concerned critic and not a composer at all.

  7. John Kennedy

    Marek, really glad to see you writing here. Keep going deeper. The “audience problem” is a social problem and too much of the work we see in the forefront succeeds from group-“like!” and the cheerleading of advocacy journalism instead of real criticism or musicology. Directing the discussion towards the art itself, and how well we are doing at cultivating diverse work outside of the popular/unpopular binary you cite, is of enormous import and interest.

  8. Jack Decker

    Thanks to Marek for writing this and thanks to NMB for publishing it (and thanks to Marek furthermore for engaging the NMB readers so thoughtfully in the comments section). I’m a Millennial like Marek (b. 1987) with a thirst for new music (and new literature, art, etc.) that is very rarely (or maybe never has been) quenched. I dutifully check in at NMB most days and always give the featured composers a chance, but from my perspective the music tends toward either being farther in the past than in the present or relying for its appeal on some sort of gimmick or notion of boundary-stretching in the composer’s aesthetic. The former is certainly enlightening and there’s nothing wrong with the occasional retrospective, but the latter I think represents an old-fashioned value system that is perhaps not shared by many Millennials.

    My understanding of this value system—which I think peaked with ‘postmodernists’ like Cage, Fluxus, etc.—is that it is paradigm-based rather than work-based.* For instance, all there is to say about Cage’s Etudes Australes relates to the process of its composition. Nobody looks at particular measures for the clever ways they negotiate some voice-leading conundrum the way one might in a Bach score. Etudes Australes and so many works from the second half of the twentieth century are basically axiomatic games or experiments, and as such strike me as increasingly old fashioned. The value system that prizes such an aesthetic is still apparent at every turn in the new music world. How often do you hear composers described glowingly for the way they fuse elements from these and those seemingly-at-odds styles of music, or for the way they manage to integrate an eclectic range of technology, or for the unique approach they use to foster audience participation? Maybe these sort of paradigmatic descriptions constituted praise 50 years ago, but they’ve always seemed trivial and besides the point to me (like praising a Mozart quintet for using two violas), for reasons that I’ve come to increasingly suspect are generational. Among such reasons are parallel ‘counter-pomo’ impulses—not strictly Millennial—in other artistic media, notably literature (a disillusionment with playing textual games for their own sake, as in Wallace and Franzen) and visual art (a shift away from the Damien Hirst model of the artist, as in Lu Cong).

    Ultimately I can only speak for myself, but one of my biggest frustrations as a Millennial interested in new music is what I perceive to be the (new music) culture’s domination—in both criticism and composition—by Boomer aesthetic values, values that privilege the frame over the painting (and thereby perpetuate what Marek has described as “New Music’s Quality Problem”). Nevertheless, it’s encouraging to hear my frustrations echoed by other young artists. I can’t wait till all this changes.

    *I realize that this is kind of circular way of articulating it, as proponents would argue that the paradigm is the work.

    1. william osborne

      One of the perennial characteristics of the new music world is a sort of imagined cultural war between younger and older generations. The differences are often polemically exaggerated which sometimes blurs the continuity of thought between generations. It also leads to narrowed and reductive views of each other’s work.

      Boomers are a very mixed bunch who straddled the modernist/postmodernist binary. As a result boomer composers are scattered between these to camps. There is no single boomer aesthetic.

      In fact, most of the postmodern movement in classical music was accomplished by a group referred to as Generation X — people born between the 60s and 80s. See:


      The modernist/pomo divide is also geographically defined to a considerable degree. In much of continental Europe postmodernism in new music has found little support, especially in the three biggest and most influential countries: Germany, France, and Italy. This has resulted in a larger cultural divide in American and European music than in any time in history.

      1. Jack Decker

        You’re right to point out that the postmodern movement is smeared across multiple generations. I’m actually in the camp that says postmodernism is not a meaningfully distinct thing from modernism, so I see the roots of the contemporary status quo (my “old-fashioned value system” above) as far back as Schoenberg, Hindemith, etc. Yet the two movements that really set the contemporary tone were both Boomer phenomena, namely the minimalist and aleatoric movements. Both fought the artificial hegemony of the serialist paradigm by turning the musical landscape into a paradigm soup (not just from composer to composer as with the early modernists, as in Bartok, Hindemith, etc., but often from work to work, as in Cage, Reich, etc.), accompanied by a sympathetic feel-good celebration of the plurality of creative voices. Moreover, receptive Gen-X’ers inherited those counter-serial values and did a lot to continue the good fight and nail them into the culture, where they are now firmly in place as the status quo. I realize that I’m painting in broad strokes. I don’t mean to imply that all Boomers thought and wrote the same sorts of things; rather I’m more attempting to characterize what I feel are the big shifts in power and influence. Also this is obviously written from an American perspective, as like you say post-war trends have been different in Europe.

        In any case, my more general point was that I’ve always felt a disconnect from the value system that delights in the conditions surrounding composition or performance (often amounting to the composer’s ‘voice’). That this value system is outdated (i.e., pre-Millennial, whether Gen-X, Boomer, etc.) is just a hypothesis, but one that I keep noticing confirmations of (though maybe that’s confirmation bias). If this hypothesis were correct, I could hypothesize as to what caused this divide: maybe Millennials, who have grown up (more or less) with the Internet, take dizzying variety as a given and are just not impressed by so-and-so blending hip hop and Celtic folk music; the same could be said about technology, namely that there is such a great ocean of music technology out there that such-and-such composer’s live electronic set-up just can’t generate interest on its own. These are all speculations and I may very well be inappropriately extrapolating my own niche view to stand for that of my generation, but I do think that there is a building backlash—led by literary Gen-X’ers I think—against the kind of euphoric relativity of postmodernism, with its emphasis on and delight in a diversity of processes, compositional axioms, and the like.

        1. william osborne

          I agree with your perspectives. And I don’t mind the broad strokes, a necessity in this type of discussion. Eclecticism became a hallmark of American conceptions of postmodernism. Europeans as whole seem to view these eclectic practices as parochial, naive — though they still rarely speak of its correlations with neo-liberal philosophy. There are several reasons why postmodernism did not make the same inroads in Europe that perhaps we can address at some point.

          The tendency toward low technical standards and facile methods in some postmodern music probably stems from weaknesses in the theory itself. The limitations of its relativism were too poorly defined. This led to a range of problems from aesthetics to its concepts of law and social justice.
          On another topic, we should note that the boomers were heavily invested in serialism and its related techniques until about 1980 when the methodology, in America at least, experienced one of the most precipitous collapses in music history. Late boomers initiated this collapse mostly through the conscious or unconscious use of postmodern theory. Broadly speaking, the Gen-Xers reveled in this new found freedom but by the mid 90s postmodernism also began to show signs of orthodoxy. And now the millennials are beginning to rebel.

          In an effort to define ourselves, each generation focuses on what it wants to change. This keeps music alive, but in the process we lose sight of the continuities and processes of transformation that define the evolution of musical thought. Are these concerns with technique simply a corrective postmodernism needs, or are there such fundamental problems with its relativism that the philosophy will ultimately thoroughly transformed or even discarded?

          1. Jack Decker

            My knowledge of postmodernism in Europe is admittedly choppy. Most of what I know I know from reading NMB (for instance the write-up of Kyle Gann’s coldly received presentation of some new American pieces, if I’m remembering correctly).

            “On another topic, we should note that the boomers were heavily invested in serialism and its related techniques until about 1980 […] And now the millennials are beginning to rebel.”

            Thanks for clarifying. I’ll admit that my chronology w/r/t these power shifts may be a bit fuzzy. This is all music history to me ;)

            “Are these concerns with technique simply a corrective postmodernism needs, or are there such fundamental problems with its relativism that the philosophy will ultimately thoroughly transformed or even discarded?”

            My sense is that what Millennials and beyond will scavenge from the latter twentieth century are its diverse technical innovations (which hold many expressive possibilities) and a strong appreciation for contextualized listening (the latter is here to stay, I think, mostly thanks to the Internet and iPod culture, in which people’s ears need to be able to shift gears in an instant).

            The difference I hope is that these will be directed towards telling stories again (in the literal programmatic/texted sense or abstractly). Of course, storytelling never died out in the first place. Adams’s Transmigration for instance is not a proof of some compositional concept; its musical means are entirely subjugated to their poetic end. But in the new music culture at large, especially when it comes to critical discourse and establishing a composerly reputation, I still think that the emphasis is on voice more than utterance.

            I always fall back on literature in these discussions because I think that’s the domain where the pomo-backlash has most blossomed into truly great art. I don’t know if you’ve read Infinite Jest. It has all the eclecticism you’d expect of an artwork from the 1990s, but it’s all directed at telling a story that’s meant to absorb you and make you feel and reflect on the world, at heart no different than anything by Tolstoy or Shakespeare. It has as little to do with textuality itself as a Beethoven symphony has to do with music itself. So basically I think that the eclectic postmodernist bag of aesthetic tricks will continue to be drawn upon, but more as a means to age-old narrative/expressive ends, since there’s nothing special about eclecticism itself anymore (or rather there never has been for many Millennials, if I’m representative).

            (Sorry for the wall of text. I do that…)

  9. Jay

    – “I’m not arguing for any sort of “objective quality…”

    -“Taste” and “quality” strike me as entirely different forces. Taste brings into the room all those alliances one makes with the world, the ways one forms an identity. Of course, I don’t really have control over my taste—I inherit it generationally, biologically, culturally, from role models and archetypes, and from social and political modes of control. ”

    Wouldn’t one’s tastes inform their perception of quality? How can we hope to escape one in order to talk about the other?

  10. David Victor Feldman

    Comparison. As Winter Olympic sports go, figure skating has a huge audience, curling next to none. The difference can’t much reflect quality since either way one has a chance to see the world’s premiere practitioners. Can one call one sport intrinsically more exciting than the other? But golf has a huge audience and hardly moves faster than curling. And as far as action sports go, figure skating literally gets choreographed!

    So not quality. Rather value and legibility. The wider public does not value curling because they find curling illegible and they lack the incentives to learn enough about the sport to follow it as connoisseurs.

    Has “new music” ever had a mass following? OK, even classical music in America has a marginal following. But I would agree that something has happened. Long ago, even about a composer as outlandish as Cage, the following question once seemed hot: would this man’s music eventually have a place in the hallowed succession that goes back at least as far as Bach? People would dine out on those debates. They could, because as recently as the ’70s or ’80s, few people construed “new music” institutionally as an independent genre. It existed as a camp within the larger institution of “classical music” (and as a practical matter mostly relied on players with that sort of training and events staged in those sort of spaces). As long as the public understood “new music” as the “new classical music” that meant the possibility of listening with a great deal at stake, historically speaking. One understood the future of the canon as in play. But autonomous “new music” (“downtown” music I want to say, speaking as a New Yorker-in-exile), paid dearly for its independence from classical music pretensions, from academia, from virtuosity, etc. Now the public finds the whole enterprise illegible. And not in the way Cage perplexed the listeners of his day. Indeed one might not like it, but with very little trouble anyone could understand something of the nature of Cage’s project. But today, coming in late, most people cannot decipher what seems at stake. Mythically speaking, “new music” may prize the sui generis, the irrelevancy of precedent, and so every kind of novelty (including sometimes novel deployments of traditional idioms). But in actuality new music insiders have a hyper-awareness of precedent and judge all pretensions to originality fiercely. Causal tourists doubtless feel lost listening to debates that begin “…but X did this all the way back in 19xx.” So “new music” has turned into one genre on long lists of modern styles with niche audiences and diverse pretensions.

    1. william osborne

      I agree that new classical is like curling (interesting analogy,) and I strongly question how far a composer can go to reach a public. What rationale is there for the existence of artists who have only small followings? Does this make their technique, or the techniques they use unworthy of support? When do we say that certain highly developed skills and methods should be rightfully ignored?

      The ancient Greeks had several words for truth. One was Aletheia, which means something like creating a space where truth can appear. (Through their rituals and theater they created a space in which the gods could appear.) When does good art have to die to make room for the new? What happens when it dies and there is little of intelligence to replace it?

      Or is it good art, even if little followed, that best creates a space for new art?

    2. Marek Poliks

      First, I think it’s important to say that my article does not address the rather entitled ‘audience problem’ and rather says that one must have the ‘quality problem’ conversation first. I’m not interested in mass followings, I’m interested in making good work and being a part of a vital community.

      However –

      “But today, coming in late, most people cannot decipher what seems at stake.”
      This comment is super pertinent to issues of quality, in precisely the way I discuss it here. We’ve lost the words to discuss, amongst ourselves, what is at stake. I believe that audiences can sense the lack of necessity and conviction.

      I definitely don’t believe that current fashions are completely illegible, though (I mean, look at the conceptual turn in German, for example, which is incredibly didactic – or, look at some of the more ‘stylistically academic’ music, which has in a lot of meaningful ways abandoned historical discursivity and incorporated lots of familiar sounds and signs into itself).

  11. Rick Sacks

    The article and comments (and responses) makes for a very interesting and compelling read. I look forward to the next ones. Here’s what I thought about while reading. It’s eldritch Priest’s dissertation “Boring Formless Nonsense” found at Bloomsbury Publishing. Arraymusic just [performed a work by eldritch on a very successful concert combining three new music organizations in Toronto celebrating Gaudeamus.

    Thanks for the article

  12. Theo

    The biggest shake up for music and musicians in the 21st century and beyond was the invention of the moving picture. If you want a real audience, you have to lure them in with blockbuster production including big name actors and directors. People want to actually see “what’s at stake”and have actors running around showing them all about it. Paying to hear just music has become obsolete as you can see almost any classical performance on youtube for free (including many old, rare, recordings filmed in black and white). A modern composer, in order to really be heard, needs to combine the music with a good Hollywood Production. That’s how most people imbibe “classical music” today, whether it’s composed to sound “old fashioned” like some of the Harry Potter music or “hip and new” like the Trent Reznor sound track for the American version of Girl With Dragon Tattoo. How about the compositions in the new Hobbit films, some of it was pretty interesting with angelic voices and some Celtic color thrown in.

  13. Sandeep Bhagwati

    It is interesting to see from afar (I am not part of the US new music scene at all) how a fairly straightforwardly put question by Marek quickly devolved into terminology and ideology squabbles in the conversations that followed it. This may be part of the problem – it almost certainly is not part of any solution I am able to imagine.

    To me, there seems to be another angle to Marek’s question: In most contemporary art forms, “audiences” are part of “quality control”. I am not talking about metrics here, but of the way certain names and concepts penetrate mainstream intellectual and artistic reality. Everyone interested in the arts in general seems to have a sense of what kind of work Olafur Eliasson or Bill Viola stand for, or the kind of things Zaha Hadid or Vivienne Westwood designs, or the kind of books David Foster Wallace or Haruki Murakami authored etc.

    None of these artists became known because they created mass-marketable or audience-oriented work – yet their initially offbeat, complex and in-group work became an iconic point of reference in discussing art in general: whether one hates [or even knows] them or not, people at least know they can refer to these artists even to people outside their specific art circuit (like I just did).

    Which equally complex living, established composer has achieved this kind of name-and-work-recognition status with contemporary artistic (non-new music) audiences ? Even past masters struggle in this respect: Ask around at a vernissage or artistic dinner, meaningfully mention their names during a literary or cineastic or philosophical discussion etc – and wait for the informed response to Stockhausen’s or Grisey’s or Carter’s work – or listen what they have to say about, say, recent Pulitzer-laureate John Luther Adams, or even John Zorn’s string quartets …I am sure you will all agree that one need not hold one’s breath.

    This inability of “new music” to reach even this particular art-and ideas-hungry kind of audience (call it the globalized urban artist/art aficionado intelligentsia or something) is to me much more disturbing than raw audience numbers. For it means that the normal mechanisms of cultural importance assessment, of canon-building and, perhaps, “quality-=control”will not work in their favour. [Caveat: I am not saying that artists not talked about by the arting and chattering classes are “bad”, just that they obviously do not matter to their present reality, and therefore will have a hard time also entering the inter-generational discourse on what is interesting and even a bone of contention in future art-making.]

    I thus agree with Marek that “new music” has a quality problem – but it is a problem not of production, but a reluctance to engage with non-in-group processes of cultural canonization. And I would not want to accept the argument that, out of all arts, new music making should be exempt from this general cultural mechanism. One need not like its results (after all, that is what feeds and legitimates counter-cultures) but I think we, as composers, musicians, promoters, should worry about the fact that it does not happen at all. I, for one, would at this point almost prefer even a snide and off-hand remark about my “horrible” or”overrated” or “lately too commercial music”in the comment sections of the New York Review of Books or artforum.com or some such publication, than an adulatory, semi-promotional and knowledgeable essay on it in the NMB…

  14. william osborne

    I agree that audiences are an important part of quality control, but I wouldn’t be too surprised if the general public were as ignorant of Eliasson or Westwood as Stockhausen. And even though Westwood is involved in a more popular form like clothing fashion. (I had never heard of her.)

    Contemporary classical falls behind the other genres, but can we be sure without some sort of objective measurement?

  15. David Victor Feldman

    Reading Sandeep Bhagwati, it strikes me that it all goes back to the Beatles. Milton Babbitt used to complain that Princeton student, though they read different books and saw different movies, they listened to the same music as kids who didn’t graduate high school (or something to that effect). Babbitt was an unabashed elitist of course, but so were those students, so the question remains, why was music different? At the height of Beatlemania, a Beatles’ concert would never have gotten a New York Times review. Criticism was a mechanism for canon formation and journalists understood pop music as ephemeral and thus self-regulating. But the Beatles got so big, and then Leonard Bernstein said they were okay, the Times started hiring rock critics and pretty soon one had to grant that the Beatles belonged to history and, more to the point, history belonged to them. And suddenly the history of “classical” music was no long the future of the history of music anymore. Pretty soon it was just one more genre.

    When people talk about sports, say great baseball players, no one says “the greatest pitcher who ever lived was this kid I went to high school with, but he became a doctor instead of playing pro ball.” If you don’t play in the majors, you’ve written yourself out of the history of baseball, period. I think that the composers of the ’60s and ’70s still figured that by continuing the classical tradition (I’m not talking about style, just institutional continuities) that they and only they “played in the majors.” Thus they didn’t respond fast enough to “just another genre” status. They didn’t adapt to hot media, continued writing 20 minute pieces when as world gobbled up 2 minute and 20 second songs. They didn’t find critical voices to anoint new canonical figures. (Tom Johnson did a great job, but The Village Voice was no New York Times and his voice was always egalitarian, hardly the stuff to drive canon formation).

    And it’s not just that those 2 minute and 20 second songs found an audience. They generated capital that got invested back into production. The cost of making one Michael Jackson album could probably have supported to whole world of new music for a few years! Without money, new music never had production values. Punk rock could ideologically reject overproduction, but new music never had the luxury of that particular decadence against which to rebel. To make matters worse, they prevailing presumption was that any classically-trained musician good enough would make a career playing standard repertoire, so few people felt inclined to get themselves to new music concerts just out of admiration for the performers. (Unless they also played standard repertoire – Peter Serkin could fill big concert halls play Messiaen — and with a light show!)

    So, in 2014, I have a hard time explaining to my otherwise intellectual friends why new music matters, why it even could matter. They know the Philip Glass’ music, at least from some sound tracks, but he’s really a cross-over phenomenon anyway — no one know Music in Twelve Parts, say. They know the name John Cage, but not the music, because arguing about his legacy still gets people through dinner parties. No one talks about Stockhausen since 9/11.

    I think the situation is a bit better in Europe. There’s a sense of competition between the major countries, so back in the day your could always get an Italian to talk about Berio, maybe Sciarrino now, a Frenchman or woman to talk about Boulez, a Greek to talk about Xenakis. The names change of the course of decades, but each country get one, perhaps at most two, figures of national pride. But that whole psychology is irrelevant this side of the puddle.


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