Six bagels on a tray in the process of being baked
Reclaiming the Missing Middle
Bagels by Nostelpinne

Reclaiming the Missing Middle

Ed. Note: Orchard Circle’s first concert will take place at the DiMenna Center’s Cary Hall in New York City on Tuesday, November 8, 2016 at 8:00pm. Further details are available on the Orchard Circle website.—FJO

Orchard Circle began as a simple conversation among friends. Essentially it’s a new music series that will focus on what could be called the “middle”—the center of the aesthetic spectrum. Saying he loved this idea, John Corigliano noted how “the middle has been neglected far too long.”  I tried to explain it earlier in terms of something Anthony Tommasini wrote, which began with his describing the wide range, quick cuts, and “irreverent mixing” of an ACJW concert presented like a rock band’s release party, which had excited him. Frank J. Oteri recently published a piece in these pages describing the whole new music world in similar terms, expressing the same exhilaration at today’s freedoms, which he saw encapsulated in something written about Henry Threadgill: “Asked about what’s caught his ear of late, he identifies some recent Elliott Carter music for piano, as well as a Beyoncé song that his daughter brought into his life.” Tommasini’s article went on, however, to discuss how there was, nevertheless, one thing missing from ACJW’s “mix tape” approach. Namely, it had no middle: that is, the concert included similar “Carter to Beyoncé”-like contrasts, but explicitly eschewed any composers one might call the “middle ground” between them, and this set Tommasini to thinking, and to describing this middle ground and his fears for it.

This missing middle is precisely what Orchard Circle is all about.  I don’t think that anyone could deny the simple facts of the matter.  Tommasini’s article was not written yesterday; it was published six years ago, and there’s little question that, by all meaningful measures (media attention, share of commission funding, space in programming, etc.), things have only gotten worse. After having noted his worry that “pieces of more traditional excellence, like Mr. Harbison’s string quartets,” could disappear, Tommasini concluded, “For now this is just a passing worry.” Yet Harbison wrote to me recently:

I have been able to reach a conclusion that it is best for me to accept that my music, and my values in general, hold little relevance for the present moment, and I am able to be most useful and productive by letting go. … My music and that of most of my contemporaries has ceased to have meaning for the world of the presenters, press, and high-powered performers.

I’ve also found some younger composers, coming out of a similar aesthetic, who seem to feel almost as despondent and “finished,” yet they had just finished grad school! Why is no one discussing this? Whatever your own aesthetics, much like the idea that biodiversity equals ecosystem resilience, you should not want to see this branch of creative activity, from composers young and old, squeezed out of existence the way it has seemed to be lately.

What is the accepted intellectual justification for this current state of affairs? Why aren’t at least the internal institutions of the composition community politely bidden to make a thorough reexamination of their priorities, and an overhaul wherever these are seen to have gone awry? In trying to get Orchard Circle going, I noted the depth and extent of feelings that so many of the composers I talked to, both young and old, hold about all of this. I also noticed how among many there is a good deal of reticence to talk about any of it openly. I hope that readers can appreciate my own trepidation in making myself pretty vulnerable discussing all of this quite directly. An open question remains whether these same composers—frequently quite individualistic and proud, and so by consequence forming a fractious, balkanized, lonely bunch, hardly a union—can ever really be coaxed into coalescing.

Orchard Circle’s first concert, at the DiMenna Center, will soon provide the first test, with players from the Berlin Philharmonic giving an election-night bash that explores the notion of a “Weimar America.” Given our theme, it might be fitting to mention a musical thinker who liked to ponder stylistic shifts, a native Berliner who was forced to leave Berlin soon after the Weimar Republic fell (he was Jewish) and who then came to New York City and taught for a long time at NYU—Curt Sachs. “However we seek to define it, there is always something tragic about aesthetics,” Sachs once wrote, noting that a good half of what is created ends up rejected by our doctrines, today as in millennia past, and that we need to think more holistically, where different styles could be seen as “different but necessary parts of a meaningful and well-organized whole.”

Tommasini’s article didn’t fully explore why the aesthetic middle ground was now eroding so completely, but I’d like to throw out a few thoughts. One of the most salient features, it seems to me, of this missing middle is that it is the part of the aesthetic spectrum that has the closest ties to Western classical music’s past. Perhaps the ability to flip instantly through a vast global bonanza gradually desensitizes listeners to the subtle inflections, quasi-linguistic narrative processes, the totality of what I might call the “metabolism”—the complex guts—of classical music?

I might also suggest that the gravitating of so many toward musical languages of greater stasis—pop, minimal, non-Western—and away from the developmental, directional language of Western classical music, might partly stem from the deeper recesses of fear and uncertainty that plague us: who might not crave a bit more stasis, when, for the most basic aspects of our world, stasis has become so fragile and threatened a commodity, while a veritable black hole of looming global change stares us in the face? Yet by that same token, one could therefore cogently argue that there never had been a time in which this wordless language of development, change, and resolution could be deemed so valuable and necessary an asset to the mind, if the intention were really to rationally confront and resolve the outsized risks we now all run.

Sachs liked to study the periodic oscillations of style, sometimes comparing them to a swinging pendulum, but other times to the more chaotic yet still periodic motions of weather, calling them “hot” and “cold” style shifts, yet with subtleties akin to cool summer spells and warm spells in winter. (A few years after he died, one of the first things the earliest researchers reconstructing past climate from ice cores discovered was that such excursions were surprisingly common and important at the time scale of climate, too, and these are now named Dansgaard-Oeschger events after those researchers.)

Aesthetic shifts don’t relate only to periodic oscillation, however, and can track events that suddenly come crashing in like an asteroid, creating cultural “punctuated equilibria”: for example, when 9/11 came crashing in, it played havoc with every aspect of life, and I suspect played a role in the shifts I am talking about, abetting the move towards those musical “languages of stasis.” Harbison mentioned the role of the press in the middle’s decline, and Howell Raines, recounting his time at the helm of the New York Times after 9/11, described in particular a sudden imposed shift at Arts & Leisure just after 9/11, which he likened to having “a new sheriff in town,” and which he said began by suddenly placing an article about a rock band on its front page. Even the language Raines uses creates a striking parallel to Naomi Klein’s notion of a “Shock Doctrine.”

That is hardly a statement of “rock versus classical,” however. I still remember giving Keith Emerson my first composition, copied in the hand of my older brother Sebastian who hadn’t yet begun composing, around the time the childhood photos accompanying this article were taken My mother being a classical composer, I rejoiced as a boy in Emerson’s virtuosic way of bridging the different musical worlds I knew, morphing Ginastera, for example, into rock, and I tried to do this kind of thing myself. Of the older composers who first expressed enthusiasm for Orchard Circle, John Corigliano just had a premiere this fall of a new piece based on bluegrass and Harbison has taught jazz at MIT. In short, I don’t think that anyone affiliated with Orchard Circle seems alienated from American popular culture.

But there’s a big difference between the inclusion of elements into a style, and the exclusion of things from it, which a sheriff or two might like to see enforced. It can be hard after a while even to notice unnamed injunctions:  how long would it have taken you to notice that there were no doubled leading tones, over centuries of musical literature and through multiple revolutions, if you hadn’t been told about this in your theory class? I’m sure I would never have noticed. So I think that some might not even have noticed the quiet, but clear and growing, exclusionary injunctions I am pointing to or that Harbison describes, filled up as they have been by the nearly infinite cornucopia of “music products” available today.


We were forced into having Orchard Circle’s first concert on election night (it was the only date our musicians, members of the Berlin Philharmonic who are here on tour, could do it), but one friend said that, given what Orchard Circle was all about, happenstance had forced it into what was perfect for it. So the program we have put together is built around the election, and we will all watch the returns together on the DiMenna Center’s large screen and high-definition projector, with good food and drink. It should be vastly more interesting than sitting in front of a television at home and being a statistic for some network’s rating!

Of course, some have been so worried that they can’t even envision listening to music that night, and John Corigliano wrote to me recently that he might even be among those himself. But for all of us there in that hall, The Fall of the House: Waltzing through Weimar America will be our rain dance, where the musical thoughts of sixteen different American composers must combine symbiotically as one—from Harbison and Corigliano to Babbitt to Glass, ranging from works of the 1970s to premieres—coalesced (at least there in music, if not personally) into a collective prayer that we find our way back to sanity.





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2 thoughts on “Reclaiming the Missing Middle

  1. Michael Robinson

    YouTube and books have given me the opportunity to look back at the history of WW1 and WW2, together with the years in-between. One author and lecturer who caught my attention is British historian, Andrew Roberts. To begin with, his command of the English language is both powerful and beautiful, in addition to some fascinating theories. However, I was taken aback by a joke he told a number of times at the beginning of lectures, making light of how his recent book landed second on some best seller list behind a book about Michael Jackson, as if Jackson was the epitome of triviality.

    Having taken the time to write about the profundity of Jackson’s best work, I decided to point out to Andrew in a friendly manner that he might wish to reconsider his seemingly jocular appraisal of this American musician and composer. He was kind enough to write back immediately, conceding that he knew little to nothing about music. (When I subsequently wrote to him about a new Winston Churchill book he was working on, and how I believed that Churchill would have recognized how great an enemy to civilization global warming and pollution was before his contemporaries, Roberts, similarly, replied that he knew little to nothing about global warming. My hope is that Roberts will turn his formidable thinking and writings gifts towards this brutal enemy of civilization, helping to defeat it.)

    Without having time to address everything written here, this did catch my attention: “I might also suggest that the gravitating of so many toward musical languages of greater stasis—pop, minimal, non-Western—and away from the developmental, directional language of Western classical music, might partly stem from the deeper recesses of fear and uncertainty that plague us:”

    These are fascinating issues to consider, and I wish to congratulate the writer for bringing them up so passionately. Of course, for anyone to imply (not the author ) that Indian classical music is lacking in developmental and intellectual profundity (unmatched is more like it!) bespeaks a basic misunderstanding or lack of knowledge. The same is true for the jazz improvisations of Lee Konitz, Alan Dawson and Richard Davis. There are myriad other musical cultures and specific artists within those forms one may cite to illustrate this clarification.

    Similarly, stating that the music of Laura Nyro or The Doors; Jackie McLean or Buddy Rich; Shivkumar Sharma or Anindo Chatterjee, among countless others, represents stasis in music (again, not the author), represents a misuse of the English language, or missing the meaning of music beyond an overly nostalgic droning for outer physical manifestations of the European past.

    Somewhere along the way, some people (not the author) began to feel that German music and related forms (some extended this to race too!) was the superior music of all. Sure, one may easily argue that for German music this was true at one time, but other forms have appeared (or were already there unknown to us in the West) that are at least, if not more, powerful and substantive in terms of intellectual, spiritual, technical and expressive properties, also possessing the priceless virtue of being of their time, or, most pertinent to us, of our time.

    Another key is that musical development is often fed and centered around rasa (expression), with technical details being a subsequent and outer manifestation of such. Thus, it is simply impossible for outward forms of the past to remain real, outside of musicians reinterpreting compositions of the past, which is certainly valid and important.

  2. Frank Manheim

    The missing audience isn’t just the middle – it’s all music lovers except contemporary music aficionados, which is about 2% of those for whom music is a meaningful part of life. Based on a total statistical survey of the population of a small town in Massachusetts years ago, around 5% total favor “contemporary classical music” because they want to keep composition alive, but the other 3% have no use for it personally. That included the late great Classical music host, Robert J. Luertsema on Boston radio station WGBH.

    Of course, the trend in “serious music” wasn’t alone. It was part of the great revolution in the arts of the early 20th Century, one of the greatest cultural catastrophes – if not the greatest – in history. The essence of that revolution is that before it the arts were considered a medium of communication, a continuum that in music bound together composers, performers (including amateur performers) and consumers – including children.

    In this revolution composers took over the high ground in the arts. They set the rules and standards. The new goal of the artist was self-actualization at the highest level of originality and quality. What was quality? Composers and the narrow circle of cognoscenti determined standards of artistic value, as clearly understood but rarely acknowledged as explicitly as Charles Rosen.

    So “you guys” – and in this group I presume but am not certain that almost all New Music Box participants are included – “won the revolution”. But it’s a hollow victory. For as Currier plaintively notes in understated form, “you guys” are all alone. The larger music-loving world is gone. They have moved mostly to popular music, to country music, folk music, and eclectic musics of various kinds. A mostly older group has stayed with classical music of the pre-revolutionary era, but they are rarely really actively, creatively, and enthusiastically involved as a large number of nonprofessionals were prior to World War II. An amateur composer, Lionel Barrymore, brother of the famous actor, John Barrymore, wrote a symphony played on air by the renowned NBC Symphony. Think of Arturo Toscanini conducting pre-revolutionary masterpieces for an on-air audience of four million!

    Oh yes, audiences will go to concerts with contemporary music and will applaud dutifully, especially for fine performance or for concluding passages that provide gestures of musical interest to non professional audiences. But it’s a “performance music” phenomenon. Corigliani’s compositions are easier on the ear than Elliot Carter’s but the principle is the same. He, not the audience is the focal point. Compositions can even be written in neoclassical style – so long as they express the composer and avoid really really communicating with audiences. For everybody knows that that would just be cheap pandering, not artistic effort.

    I once had an instructive experience when I took a young couple to a concert at the Washington Symphony. It was the wife’s first real exposure to classical music and I was curious about her reaction. On the program were Rimsky Korsakov’s Sheherezade, and Stravinsky’s Rites of Spring. To me, whose early tastes had been largely influenced by pre-revolutionary music in a musical household, subsequent experiences singing great music in choirs and octets, and playing viola in baroque and classical music in chamber orchestras, Rimsky’s melodic and harmonic inspirations were ravishing. But to the young woman the latter part of Stravinsky’s Rites were most interesting.

    This experience parallels the statement of a radio host of a pop music station whose offerings were varied but mostly rock. “Now the next two numbers are going to be melodic, and you probably won’t like them. But I like them!”

    It doesn’t mean that young contemporary audiences don’t “get” melody. They do. Singing “Happy Birthday” to an eclectic and creative collection of notes would make no sense. But it isn’t “today” or “now”. Our population is fragmented. We lost something infinitely precious when the composers took over. And I desperately miss that community.


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