Those Were The Days. Or Were They?
Three Living Legends of Contemporary Music Compare Yesterday and Today
By Mic Holwin
"Writing seems to be more difficult as you move through the years," says composer George Crumb when asked about how the composition process has changed for him over his 68-year lifetime. "It never gets easier. When I was younger, I used to think 'Oh gee, in 20 years, it will all be so easy.' But it's not that way if you're not willing to repeat yourself."
Not repeating yourself in half a century is a formidable task for anyone, let alone one of 20th-century music's preeminent composers, whose output can be scrutinized by millions of people. Only a handful of composers living today can claim to have grappled with this problem throughout a good part of the past century.
George Crumb and with him David Diamond and George Perle have observed the comings and goings (and returns) of serialism, neo-romanticism, minimalism and structuralism. Poised on the edge of the 21st century, these respected 20th-century composers have been first-hand witnesses to the process of composing, from the writing of a piece to its final performance, over years of history that span from Prohibition to the Gulf War.
83-year-old George Perle, author of the standard work on the music of Schoenberg, Berg and Webern, Serial Composition and Atonality (now in its sixth edition), was one of the first American composers to be profoundly influenced by Schoenberg's radical new 12-tone technique in the early years of this century. Perle says the act of composing hasn't changed a bit for him since then. It still only involves "a blank sheet of paper and trying to write something you believe in."
"I'm a composer because I'm a composer," he states simply. How a composer goes about writing, he believes, doesn't change because of stylistic fads, receptiveness of audiences, or whether or not commissions are rolling in. "I hear sounds in my head," Perle says; composing is simply the act of corralling those sounds on paper.
This ability to make manifest one's inner muse is what makes the difference between a composer and a great composer, according to David Diamond.
Diamond, a 20th-century classicist known for his finely-crafted symphonic works, is also 83 and was writing his first commission when Franklin D. Roosevelt was re-elected President. He believes the act of composition can only be accomplished once one has had solid theoretical training. Once thusly grounded, says Diamond, "if a composer has imagination, it will be an important piece and he will be an important composer. Without imagination, they will only be notes on paper."
Crumb, who came to the fore in the '60s with darkly evocative timbres and mystical rituals, also emphasizes a composer's responsibility to add only exceptional pieces to music history's long list of works. "It is easy to write unthinking music," he says. "But I don't think it's a good thing to create less than good music in a world that's full of a lot of indifferent music."
Crumb claims he's slowed down in the last few years ("I think maybe it's age," says the composer, who was just in one door from the Bowdoin Festival in Maine and was almost out another door to Boulder, Colorado). "I sometimes wonder, too," he mulls further, "if people don't have kind of a window of time when they do their best work. And anything after that is like a gift."
Compared to their own years as young composers, the three have mixed opinions on whether it's more or less difficult in today's world for an emerging composer to succeed. Perle, for one, believes it's a better world now for young composers.
"It's easier in certain practical ways," he says. "There was nothing like ACO. More of this music is played today. There's a lot more activity. When I was younger, there was no opportunity for a composer to get played by an orchestra. I wrote lots of piano music, lots of string quartets."
But with the listening public slowly tuning out, Crumb doesn't think all is rosy. "I think we're in a very low point of music right now," he says. "It was better 30 years ago. And it's better in Europe now than it is here. This is not a happy time for this kind of music in this country."
In Diamond's view, hard times for contemporary classical music started 50 years ago and are partially the result of composers themselves. "To me, the most glaring difference [between then and now] is that because of the influence from Europe after the second World War, we suddenly were inundated by double the number of composers who did not have traditional theoretical training," he says emphatically. "They simply started pushing the 12 chromatic notes around."
Diamond taught for a quarter century at The Juilliard School, ensuring that every student who had aspirations to be a composer was solidly grounded in traditional training before they were allowed to delve into any abstruse language of their own. "And if they could not explain what the notes were doing, there was no point to it."
He also attributes contemporary classical music's tough times to the dearth of good conductors in post-War America, a problem that he feels is still with us today. "Everything lies in [the younger conductors'] laps," Diamond says. "They are the ones that it all depends on. They don't choose the works to play carefully, as Koussevitzky used to do when I was a young manthey were very careful in how they chose their contemporary music. Where today is sort of helter-skelter.
"It's all a question of having a certain amount of authoritative judgement, which I'm not too sure exists today. Today what has happened is the attitude of Anything Goes."
Crumb cites the ascendancy of rock and pop music as one reason orchestras and contemporary classical music aren't more in demand. "People aren't so much interested [in contemporary classical music] and the big periodicals are reviewing rock as if that is the contemporary music of our timeof course, it is a contemporary music, and it's not that that music can't have its own kind of integrity, but there's something it leaves out if you say that it's the only thing going on.
"I pick up the New York Times or Time and it's talking about the latest rock group, which I'm sure is exciting to some people, but it neglects a huge area of music. [Popular music] doesn't address some issues. It can't, fundamentally. It's more surface, about superficial issues. As interesting as that music can occasionally be, I don't think it really replaces the other."
That said, Crumb does empathize with those composers who are adding rock and pop influences to their orchestral music. "It's a reflex panic," he says. "They're trying like crazy to make themselves a part of that. We all get some things, I'm sure. My younger son is a rock archivist practically; I'm sure things have filtered out of thatit's in the air in this house."
For Perle and Diamond, pop music was (and is) another branch of music entirely that didn't cross-pollinate their own work. "I didn't feel any conflicts," says Perle about writing atonal symphonic music as pop music began its slow seep into classical language. "I had a language and I developed it. Critics have found connections between my music and jazz. I didn't look to put it in. It's just not even an issue for me."
Crumb, who has quoted Bach to 19th-century hymns, says his music relates to popular musics of other times. "Most of my influences are turn-of-the-century," he says. "The LAST turn-of-the-century," he adds laughingly.
Many of Crumb's pieces, such as his Pulitzer Prizewinning Echoes of Time and the River, make reference not just to music of other times, but to time itself. In Echoes, for example, time is evoked by processionals of players on stage. ("I realized even then that it wasn't the most practical orchestra piece," he laughs about his conception of the piece 30 years ago.)
A dark period of time inspired Diamond's Symphony No. 2, first performed by Koussevitzky himself at Symphony Hall in 1944. "I was very emotionally upset by the War and what was going on in Germany," Diamond says of his self-described "war symphony." While the piece starts with a "funereal adagio," it ends with "a very hopeful last movement, that there will be a victory for all the courageous idealists of the worldand that we'll get rid of Hitler."
Comparatively, Perle's Piano Concerto No. 1, written closer to the coming century than to the last, isn't time-specific. Perle doesn't see the millennium mark as a reason to reevaluate music and the methods of its creation and dissemination. Along with the other composers, he firmly believes there will be a place for the orchestra in the 21st century.
"I'm optimistic," says Diamond about music of the future. "I won't be around at that time, but I think the next 25 years are going to put things through sieves."
George Crumb's Echoes of Time and the River and the New York premiere of George Perle's Piano Concerto No. 1 will be performed at ACO's September 27 concert, conducted by Paul Lustig Dunkel. David Diamond's Symphony No. 2 will be performed at ACO's November 1 concert, Gerard Schwarz conducting.