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The Avant-garde

The Concertgoer

By Chris Rochester

"YOUTH," Leon Kirchner suggested in his remarkable introduction of Roger Sessions earlier this year, "has turned to the fountainhead of humanism only to find it constricted by mechanism." He was referring to the problem of the composer's relation to his art in a world transmogrified by mass media, as well as the acompanying problem of increasing audience estrangement from the innovative efforts of contemporary composers. The audiences increase in size yet deteriorate in understanding, incessantly lamenting the contemporary composer's august disregard for their prejudices.

As it happened, this massive absorption of affluent but generally insensitive people into the audiences has coincided with a period of intense impatience with the old musical conventions, and urgent desires for new musical vocabularies. The result has been that the schism between composer and listener, which is an unmistakable sign of health, has become so broad that orchestras will not play new works. Even when they do, as in the cases of Elliott Carter's Piano Concerto or Milton Babbitt's Relata II, they cause outbreaks of hysterical recrimination, especially in those citadels of analytical dross, The New York Times and The New Yorker. The modern composer faces an audience whose taste is a brew of remembrance and indigestion, appealing for Beethoven, Tchaikowsky, and Verdi and refusing to acknowledge the existence of post-war music. For most of these people "modern" music consists of The Firebird, La Mer, Bolero, the Rachmaminoff Piano Concertos, and Appalachian Spring.

New music was fatally stigmatized as "serial" by its won early champions, and the public image of cloistered men disgorging an endless series of mechanical monsters has yet to fade. People will always demand the ambrosia of the past, and contemporary composers refuse to serve it, a decision approaching martyrdom.

'Music," as Mr. Kirchner said, "is being lobotomized by cultural stupidity." America, with her genius for suffocating within immense borders, has produced very little great music because she strains so furiously to produce it. Now that her artists have finally ceased rummaging through European dustbins, they find themselves in an unnaturally in-hospitable culture. Our leaders are hostile, our people consumptive, our arts enslaved. President Nixon's musical tastes range from a memorable arrangement of America the Beautiful for forty oil drums, to the Inaugural performance of All We Like Sheep by that otiose organ of musical dyspepsia, the Mormon Tabernacle Choir. Television emerges briefly from its ashcan to air a splendid production of Midsummer Night's Dream and then proceeds to ruin the gesture by taking out a full-page newspaper advertisement the next day celebrating its wondrous beneficence. The Trustees of our orchestras are unconquerably reactionary, hopelessly clinging to the Romantic core of the repertoire. The ungainly orchestral apparat of a tableau vivant of funereal men playing the ten thousandth repetition of Beethoven's Fifth before a benign audience has understandably driven young people to films and plays, where one can speak and move, argue and refine, receive yet enter into self-expression.

We are experiencing an exhilarating mid-century suspicion of our cultural inheritance. This attitude of critical activity is not a decline into functionalism but the discovery of a new quality of integrity. "Music," as Roger Sessions remarked in his opening lecture, "is to be judged on its own merits, however slowly they reveal themselves. . . . The criteria is authenticity and immediacy in regard to experience." Some way out of our present musical somnambula must be found. "The world," feels Mr. Kirchner, "needs shock treatment; this is the role of the avant-garde. It is sacrificial, self-immolating." The purpose of such men as John Cage and Pierre Boulez is to inter the paralyzing reputations of the masters, especially the twentieth-century masters who have become classics and therefore dead issues. The finest contemporary composers are struggling to form and sustain unservile metaphors of continuity and revolution. The avant-garde is an agent of wise exasperation seeking to burn through the cloud of jingle and treacle which daily cheapens all of our lives.

MUSIC is moving into a more pungent commerce with the particulars of life. And cries of anarchy are beside the point. Anarchy is rapid evolution misperceived as chaos. Artists such as John Cage or Lukas Foss create through their irreverance. Their improvisatory music suggests that the entire aural material of man's sensible life is exquisite and repulsive music, according to the mental inflection one lends it.

Music is the sensitized constancy of the world's noises. The most difficult problem of any art is to progress without replacing one set of arbitrary conventions with another set. The avant-garde, in attempting to solve this problem, is generating fresh breezes across the face of music. And when their successes and failures are recognized, young people will no longer approach classical music through Beatle allusions and electric disembowelments; they will come to music as the most sensitive come to a film by Godard or Bunuel, because they must, because they wish to speak.

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