In reading Mark Swed's recent piece on tough times calling for thorny music, I'm kind of at a loss as to how to react – beyond my initial gut expression of, "Grr, arggghhh, Hulk SMASH!!!" I agree with certain of his criticisms – like the overprogramming of new orchestral music that too closely resembles old repertoire in the harmonic and gestural sense – and disagreeing violently with certain other statements, which may have more to do with Swed's wording than his actual meaning. For instance, he writes, "When times get tough, as in America during the Great Depression and the Second World War, music gets soft. The times, surveys say, are once again tough, and they're likely to stay that way. A sustained period of stylistic regression is thus a possibility."
Forgetting some tough, strident works from the WWII period, like Barber's Symphony no. 2, to stay within the symphonic genre, Swed's statement, at least as written, upholds the notion that artistic "progress" (whatever that is) is linear, and that change in art follows a scientific line of development based on previous advances, and not that the outward trappings of an artwork are just as subject to the whims of fashion and public taste as clothing and vernacular speech. Not that I think he's saying new music should be rooted in modernism and complexity exclusively – in fact, he goes out of his way to say New Complexity is done, what else ya got? – but it's hard to escape the historical-inevitability tone of the Boulez-Stockhausen generation in phrasing it this way, and comes off as minimizing the importance of other trends in classical music concurrent to modernism, and their relation to the society of their time.
The main object of his article seems to be the American New Romantics, as exemplified by what he labels the "Atlanta School", meaning people like Jennifer Higdon, Christopher Theofanidis and Michael Gandolfi.
"The only thing that allows such squishy music to be called modern, however, is a limited eclecticism, one that says different styles need not conflict, just so long as none of them resemble Modernist rebellion. Getting along is the value system. Minimalism and the New Romanticism and folk styles and various aspects of pop are all welcome in the mix. The Atlanta orchestra takes pride in sending its listeners home happy, having been given a big sonic hug and assured everything will be all right."
Aside from the fact that there's nothing wrong in wanting music to perform this function, how exactly does this work not reflect its times? Is it unreasonable for people facing difficult times to want something beautiful in their lives? Not that artists and art institutions should cater to this whim exclusively, but why shouldn't there be room for this type of work? I generally prefer superhero movies to big, serious epics (Iron Man was fantastic), because I like to be entertained by film. It's my one area of cultural consumption where my tastes are unashamedly populist/commercial. It's not that I don't want to be exposed to the grimness of No Country for Old Men or There Will be Blood, it's just that with limited time for this particular activity, I prefer lighter fare. I don't think it makes me less intelligent or blind to the reality of the world; it just means that I, like many other people, need some escapism now and then. An artist's production is not, cannot be the full measure of their engagement in the world. My work may not overtly reflect my attitude toward the state of the world, but it doesn't mean I'm not hella outspoken about it in other parts of my life. My work is just that: one part of my life. A major one, to be sure, but no more than that. Would we measure people in other fields by the same standard just because of their career choices? No. So why are artists somehow held to the higher moral yardstick, bearing some vague responsibility to enlighten their audiences to some great Truth?
Furthermore – and to go beyond Swed's article – in terms of art being reflective of its times, I think there's a sharp line to be drawn between artworks that trade largely on the rhetoric and gestural languages of the past (imitating the rhetoric of, say, a Rachmaninov piano concerto or a Shostokovich symphony), music so firmly rooted in its models that it sounds second-hand, and music which simply builds on that tradition. For the record, I'm not a big fan of Higdon, generally like Theofanidis, and know nothing about Gandolfi. What I've heard of their work makes it simply a bit conservative in my mind, but it definitely sounds as if it couldn't have been written in any other time period. Even the hypothetical imitation Rachmaninov and Shostakovich have their place, if that's what people in a certain locality want to hear. For better or worse, art can't help being of its time in one way or another. A good friend of mine who runs classical and jazz programming for an NPR station is fond of saying, "If it's out there, and successful, it must mean someone wants it." Which is not to say, again, that consumers of art should be fed on an exclusive, unchallenging diet, but that the fact that this type of work is out there suggests a need for it in the zeitgeist, on both the creative and receptive ends. And really, what's wrong with something whose primary purpose is to be beautiful and make people feel good? It seems disingenuous to suggest that all art should strive for more than that, when so noble a goal is being accomplished already. Going beyond that is an option, not an obligation. I don't for a minute believe these artists are taking the easy route; they're doing what makes sense to them. I firmly reject the notion that an artist's – or an audience's – depth of engagement with the world and society in which they live can be gauged by something as simple as artistic taste, especially when that taste is calibrated along the ever-sliding scale of so-called "complexity".
On top of that, just because a certain stylistic trait isn't exhibited in an artist's work doesn't mean it hasn't been considered. In all likelihood, it has, and been put aside as something that doesn't fit that artist's way or working or thinking. Ultimately, art has no particular responsibility to reflect any one aspect of the tenor of the times. I could just as easily use the same argument against someone who insists that music should only be beautiful and make people feel good. If there's one thing we can learn from Beethoven, the example par excellence of the artist as individual, it's not that artists should be free to innovate and shock and challenge their audience, it's that artists should be free to say what they have to say, period. In practice, whether I like a piece of art or not, I find that it all has a place somewhere, whether it's gritty and hard-hitting, reflective of a troubled time, quiet and meditative, forcing one to pay very close attention, or just escapist fun. As a practicing artist, I lay claim to all aesthetics and languages, but reserve the right not address them all in my reflection of the world around me. Michael Tippett, in his wonderful philosophical ramble Moving into Aquarius, has a quote that has resonated with me since first reading it as a teenager, and I think it's apt in this context:
"I have been writing music for forty years. During those years there have been huge and world-shattering events in which I have been inevitably caught up. Whether society has felt music valuable or needful I have gone on writing because I must. And I know that my true function within a society which embraces all of us, is to continue a tradition, fundamental to our civilization, which goes back into pre-history and will go forward into the unknown future. This tradition is to create images from the depths of the imagination and to give them form whether visual, intellectual or musical. For it is only through images that the inner world communicates at all. Images of the past, shapes of the future. Images of vigour for a decadent period, images of calm for one too violent. Images of reconciliation for worlds torn by division. And in an age of mediocrity and shattered dreams, images of abounding, generous, exuberant beauty."