But as I read the articles I notice an underlying deficiency. The articles, on an extensive group of contemporary composers, tend to be all-praise, all the time. This is not real education of the reader, this is cheerleading. We go to great lengths to avoid any suggestion of actual aesthetic evaluation these days, for fear of appearing 'negative' I suppose. But simply avoiding or denying aesthetic value distinctions does not make them go away. The issue is fundamental. Imagine you walk over to your CD shelf (or, to be more current, go to your iPod). Unless you only own one CD or only have one playlist, you have to choose what you want to listen to. On the very simplest level, you do so based solely on how you feel at that moment. But, if you own a bunch of music, as time goes on, you might discover that you keep coming back to certain pieces and listen more rarely to other pieces. In other words, you have noticed an aesthetic difference that is not just dependent on your mood. Congratulations, you have just discovered aesthetics.
A professional writer on music in a widely-distributed mainstream publication surely must have gone through this process. Perhaps they have even made some sort of formal study of music. Given this, were they not prohibited from making or mentioning any aesthetic judgments, they would surely be sharing them with us instead of carefully avoiding any hint of 'favoritism'. Oh, for Pete's sake, not all contemporary composers are equally worth our time. They are like books: some need to be read slowly and thoroughly, others skimmed briefly and still others cast aside with great force. But there is no hint of this in the Guardian series. Pauline Oliveros, whose music explores the narrowest of ideas and effects, is given the same weight and consideration as a composer of wide influence such as Ligeti. If you have no aesthetic judgement then you can't explain why J. S. Bach is a really important composer and W. F. E Bach is not.
Isn't it also true that this kind of approach puts the composer on a pedestal and keeps us from getting a real sense of what is going on in their music? There is nothing like comparing more successful pieces with less successful ones by the same composer to really give you insight into what he or she was trying to do. To give full credit to Tom Service, I notice that here and there he does get into this kind of discussion. One example is in the most recent essay, on John Adams where towards the end he writes:
The previous article was on Ligeti and it is rather hagiographic--perhaps with more justification. But in simply marveling at and praising Ligeti's music, the writer fails to reveal to us the very significant challenges that faced Ligeti. Unlike some 20th century composers, there is nothing of the charlatan in Ligeti. He experienced the horrors of the century at first hand and was able to communicate them in the music. The Requiem is a well-chosen example:
Tom Service describes this as "