Monday, July 11, 2016

American Composers ... Pianissimo?

Alan Fletcher, composer and president and CEO of the Aspen music festival and school, has a piece in the Guardian about the featuring of American symphonic composers at this year's Aspen Festival. The title is "Why are the reputations of US composers so pianissimo?" Now, of course, this is largely a puff piece aimed at promoting the festival. But it might be fun to try and answer the question posed by the title. Isn't it interesting that articles whose title poses a provocative title like this one, never, never, never actually answer the question because they just assume it is rhetorical?

You should go read the whole thing, but let's just browse through it a bit. The opening lays out the situation pretty well:
What does it say about a nation when it doesn’t do justice to its own composers? Americans are famous for their patriotism, but do we really walk the walk in terms of loving our own culture? You can hear Prokofiev in concert halls across the country, but just try programming Piston. (Walter Piston, 1894-1976, the brilliant American symphonist – see?)
At this summer’s Aspen music festival, we are presenting a group of mid-20th-century modernist American symphonies. There will be major symphonic works by Piston, George Antheil, Erich Korngold, Peter Mennin, Roger Sessions, Charles Ives, Roy Harris and William Schuman. I’m especially happy that audiences will hear Mennin’s brilliant and gutsy Fifth Symphony, and Sessions’s Violin Concerto. Planning our marketing, phrases such as “all but forgotten”, “unjustly neglected”, “unaccountably unknown” kept coming up. As a composer myself, who knew many of the composers whose work will be performed, I struggled against these descriptions. I have not forgotten these composers and their magnificent music. And yet.
Some quick research shows that Harris, Mennin, Piston, Schuman and Elliott Carter (who together wrote more than 100 concert symphonic works) had, in the past five years, a total of just 20 performances by US orchestras.
The rest of the article seems to be a concerted effort to avoid the question by haring down as many side-roads as possible. So let's see if we can think of some answers to the question.

Isn't the first sentence an interesting and revealing statement: "What does it say about a nation when it doesn’t do justice to its own composers?" Let's just unpack that a bit. First of all, the fundamental assumption is that America is being unjust to its symphonic composers, these ones at least, by ignoring them. Instead of considering the question of the title, he just jumps right past it to a foregone conclusion. But is America being unfair to its symphonic composers by ignoring them? What is the alternative? Is it possible that most concert audiences just don't particularly enjoy what they have written? Or could we be more specific and look at which symphonic works are more-performed and which are less-performed?

Obviously the focus of the festival is on the composers who were highly regarded, at least in some circles, in the time from the 1920s through the 1970s. Composers of the first major wave of modernism. The focus is not on the more successful composers of more recent times like John Adams and Philip Glass. It is kind of interesting that no attempt is made to argue that, yes, we need to perform Walter Piston and the others more because their music is well worth listening to.

Why don't we do our own little mini-festival and listen to a few symphonic pieces by the composers mentioned and see what we have been missing? I am not well-acquainted with this repertoire, so I just picked the first symphonic work (excluding concertos) that came up for each composer. First up is the Symphony No. 5 by Walter Piston. In the last two and a half years it has had 1,800 views on YouTube:


Next, George Antheil, this is his Symphony No. 1. In three and a third years it has had around 13,000 views:


This is Erich Korngold's Symphony in F-sharp major, Op.40 (1953). In three years it has seen 36,000 views:


Here is the Symphony No. 7 by Peter Mennin. In nearly four years it has seen 1,400 views on YouTube:


Finally, Roger Sessions. This is his Symphony No. 1. In the last five years it has seen 6,000 views on YouTube.


Erich Korngold aside, it is safe to say that listeners are not eagerly pursuing the opportunity to listen to this music. Why is that? Could it be that one reason is that nearly every piece starts with a slow, hazy, ambiguous section that is highly unlikely to grab an audience? Sure, they get to some more active stuff later on, but the feeling for the listener at the beginning is "yes, we have to sit here, twiddling our thumbs, while the composer decides on which, or if, he is going to have a tonality. Or a theme. Or a bloody rhythmic motif." When some rhythmic activity does begin, it seems inflexible--sterile neo-classic counterpoint with maybe just a touch of jazz as in the Sessions. Sure, there is a lot of individuality, but so much of this music has the same dreary existential angst to it. I'm just not sure there is much enjoyment in listening to the composer work it out.

These guys really should have listened to some Haydn. He knew how to grab the listener's attention right off the bat:


Or Philip Glass, for that matter:


8 comments:

sluggingavampire said...

If I play the Piston, Antheil, Mennin and Sessions all at once the music is way more interesting and free and attention-grabbing. I guess this is why I'm an Ives fan...

Bryan Townsend said...

Oh yes, definitely. Maybe add in the Philip Glass too.

But do not attempt to include the Haydn as well. That will cause a great disturbance in the Force.

Ken Fasano said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Marc Puckett said...

Knowing how well appreciated Spotify is, ahem, the numbers of 'monthly listeners' (by which is meant, I presume, 'the number of individual accountholders who have listened to N. during the month'): Glass (1.4 million), Haydn (426 K), Korngold (34 K), Anthiel (3.8 K), Piston (649), Sessions (182), and Mennin (112). My friend whose two albums are on Spotify has 7: at least poor Messrs Sessions and Mennin aren't in single digits.

Bryan Townsend said...

I accidentally deleted Ken Fasano's comment which was:

"What? No mention of Morton Feldman on a post on American composers and pianissimo?"

Sorry Ken!

Bryan Townsend said...

Thanks, Marc, for that data. Very interesting. Tracks close to YouTube, except by the month.

Feldman probably didn't make the list because he didn't write any symphonies and not much at all for orchestra.

Jeph said...

thanks for the rundown, I never would have sought these out.
Piston: intriguing at first, lost patience about 5 minutes in
Antheil: surprisingly very charming, sweet, and the dissonances good-humored
Korngold: turned me right off, yuk
Mennin: inert, tiresome, neurotic
Sessions: Bernstein without the charisma and swing.

Antheil by a mile

Jeph said...

oh and the Glass was a nice surprise too. He usually leaves me a little cold, but this has some depth of emotion, a yearning quality.