A few weeks ago, my regular pub trivia team took over the rotating hosting duties at our weekly game at Wonderland. Teammate and Reasonoid Dave Weigel and I decided to close with an audio round, split into two parts: Dave did five questions about his beloved mash-ups, and I did five about 20th century composers, with a verbal hint followed by a 45-second excerpt of a piece, given in chronological order of composition. This was—how to put it?—not well received. There were audible groans as we moved through the samples. One team wrote “worst round ever” over the second half of their answer sheet.
Maybe I’m just demonstrating how ensconced I am in the bubble of my own geeky, pretentious interests, but I was surprised at the reaction. I didn’t think these were terribly obscure pieces. I picked some of the more famous works of composers whose names I’d thought would at least be familiar to our (pretty well-educated) audience: Copland’s “Fanfare for the Common Man,” Stravinsky’s “Rite of Spring,” John Adams’ “Nixon in China” (with a hint that the composer shared a name with a president, appropriately enough for the piece). A handful of teams got as many as three of them; just one team—the only one whose members all looked to be in their 30s—knew all five composers.
So I share this Slate reviewer’s hope that The Rest Is Noise, an excellent new book by New Yorker music critic Alex Ross, will raise the profile of some artists deserving of much wider exposure. The one team that aced the category does give me some hope that, despite the Grup phenomenon, there are a lot of people who will begin discovering this stuff when they hit the age at which they start feeling slightly out of place at Walkmen shows and start gravitating more toward jazz and classical.
Actually, contemporary indie rock is part of what makes me think this is more likely to happen for the current crop of folks in their 20s and early 30s. There’s no especially easy segue from “Freebird” to Schoenberg—listening to the former doesn’t prepare your ear for the latter. But for a generation raised on the likes of Radiohead’s post–Kid A albums or Battles or Do Make Say Think, it’s not a huge leap to enjoying Terry Riley or Steve Reich. (Indeed, I see that Pitchfork has reviewed some of Reich’s records.) If that’s right, then the present obscurity of modern classical composers may not be a symptom of the form’s descent into some kind of pernicious obscurantism, but only a temporary hiccup in the traditional symbiotic relationship between pop and “art” music.
Update: Commenter Chris M. wants a little elaboration of this final claim. Mostly it’s just that the innovations 20th century composers introduced have trickled down into pop songs. As I’ve suggested before, Sufjan Stevens tends to write conventionally pretty vocal melodies, but he drops the vocals and instrumentation over a repetitive, looping backgrounds that are obviously influenced by folks like Glass and Riley—listen to just about any track on Illinois. Not that this is totally novel—the Velvet Underground loudly professed their debt to La Monte Young. But they were also significantly ahead of the curve. Partly, as Chris suggests, it’s that guitar-driven rock is becoming less central, and more generally, people no longer find it odd to hear odd samples and “non-musical” noises incorporated into a song.
Perhaps the main thing is that, as Ross emphasizes, one factor limiting the audience of 20th century composers was the way they embraced sounds that were deliberately “ugly,” or at any rate, not conventionally melodious and harmonic. And anybody with a shelf full of Pavement or Sonic Youth albums already understands perfectly well, in a way that their parents might not have, how dissonance, distortion, atonality, and “noise” can be beautiful and powerful—already knows how to look for the hidden structure in aural chaos.