Just because an intense period of innovation has come to a close does not mean that new music is going downhill. In fact, it is probable that composers are producing more really fine music now than they did in the ’60s and very early ’70s. After all, the many innovations of those years have provided a tremendous amount of fresh material to work with, and now that composers are not so driven by the search for novelty, they can take time to delve more deeply into stylistic areas already known, and pay more attention to the emotional content and sociological implications of what they are doing. This basically conservative, circumspect attitude has begun to produce a number of backward-looking pieces and hybrid styles, many of which are still difficult to evaluate, simply because the accepted criteria for judging quality aren’t really applicable. And in this climate, certain things have begun to seem feasible which were not at all feasible when revolution and novelty were in full swing.
Perhaps now it will be possible to find ways of writing new music which will be acceptable to symphony orchestras and their audiences as well as to composers. Perhaps composers can take more time to look inside and ask themselves what their own personal music is all about. And when something passe is required, like a Mozartean orchestration or a reference to John Philip Sousa, perhaps composers will no longer worry so much about their reputations as innovators, and can just go ahead with whatever a particular piece seems to require.
To a large extent such changes are already taking place. When I go to an audience participation event, or pick up an avant-garde publication, or hear concerts of new music, I don’t find those radical look-how-groovy innuendos anymore. Nor do I sense any desire to offend conservatives. The basic concern is simply to make a genuine statement of some sort. And when audiences don’t like a performance, they usually come up with relatively thoughtful remarks, rather than merely passing it off with that damning ’60s remark: ‘It’s been done before.’ Countless composers have begun relating their work to earlier styles of classical music, or to popular idioms. Instrumental composers are looking less for new sounds and more for appealing sounds. In most cases composers of electronic music are continuing to work with the same basic equipment they were using five years ago. Minimalists have invariably abandoned their most severe ideas in favor of more ingratiating approaches. Some who used to write tough abstract music are warming up and admitting outright romanticism from time to time. And everyone seems less concerned about whether a musical idea is new, and more concerned about what it means.
But an interesting thing has happened in the meantime. As the concern with originality has faded, the other criteria for quality have become more nebulous, and the critic’s job has become more difficult. Until recently, I could generally go away from a concert with a fairly clear idea of who would have appreciated it, who wouldn’t have, and what the frame of comparison ought to be. Some concerts were directed toward the academic community, others were aimed at the SoHo crowd, and others attempted in varying degrees to reach wider audiences. But in all cases there were commonly accepted criteria for quality, and when composers changed their styles it was easy to see what was happening.
For example, as Terry Riley and Philip Glass gave up their obsessions with minimalism, sped up their pacing, and went for a flashier kind of sound, it was a foregone conclusion that they would pick up a lot of general listeners and more or less disenfranchise themselves from the core of the avant-garde. And when Cornelius Cardew began espousing Maoist principles, it didn’t take much critical acumen to see that, while he was perhaps appealing to European radicals, he wouldn’t be very well received in America.
But more recently I’ve begun to notice composers making stylistic shifts which are hard to explain simply in terms of audience categories. Jim Burton, whose audience is pretty much SoHo-based, turns to writing songs about Wyoming, and ends up with a pseudo-country sound that offends some of his listeners almost as much as it amuses others. Steve Reich turns to a lusher and more romantic kind of music, with the result that some of his fans lament that he is losing his old toughness, others like him better than ever, and conservative listeners are forced to revamp their habitual objections. Charles Wuorinen gives up his heady abstractions and begins writing, of all things, a comic opera, which, judging from the 1976/the-years-of-innovation-pass-oniew last month, is likely to be incomprehensible even to the academic community. Carla Bley records her ‘3/4’ with symphonic seriousness and a cerebral complexity which surprises me and must baffle Jazz Composers Orchestra audiences. In cases like those, it’s hard to know who the music is supposed to be for in the first place, and even harder to come up with valid reasons when I don’t like something.
Not long ago I happened to tune in on a radio interview with a psychoanalyst who was lamenting the way his field had become fragmented into so many little schools, each having different goals and promises, and none carrying the kind of legitimacy and prestige that the big old Freudian and Jungian groups used to have. He called it a ‘tower of Babel,’ and found the situation quite undesirable. But as I look around and see factions breaking apart in a similar way in new music, the situation seems desirable. It may be confusing for critics and audiences for a while, but out of all the reshuffling, there are bound to be a lot of good pieces—and they won’t be mere novelties.